Henry McKoy says Durham’s leaders like to “stand on the mountaintop and proclaim it’s the bluest city in America.”

But the North Carolina Central University professor derided a statement by the People’s Alliance that encouraged the county’s elected officials to not renew the contract of Durham County Manager Wendell Davis, a Black man whose seven-year tenure has been lauded for its professional achievements but marred by in-fighting with county board members. 

His contract ends in June but automatically renews unless the board votes to replace him. 

The statement from the multiracial, predominantly white People’s Alliance called for the hiring of a new county manager with progressive philosophies in line with their ideals.

PA’s statement from board members noted that City Manager Tom Bonfield retired in September and implied that the end of Davis’s tenure as county manager is also a foregone conclusion. The statement thanked both managers “for their years of service” and encouraged local elected officials “to remember these important qualities as they search for our community’s new leaders.”

But Davis, who was hired in April 2014, has not publicly stated that he is stepping down as the county’s top executive.

McKoy called the statement a “professional lynching” driven by race, not merit. 

“You can’t go back from this,” McKoy told the INDY this week. “You can’t say our values are about racial equity and simultaneously do things that reek of racist bias and intent.”

In a blog post, Durham pastor, activist and columnist Carl Kenney likened PA’s statement to the actions of a “lynch mob.”

But Millicent Rogers, co-president of the politically progressive People’s Alliance, said race had nothing to do with the board’s statement.

“Davis,” she wrote in an email to the INDY, “is a self-described fiscal conservative.” 

The People’s Alliance, she added, “espouses a prosperity philosophy of spending public dollars for public goods like public schools, living wages, and social welfare. We cite several examples of where we see the Manager’s conflict with this approach in our statement.”

Rogers noted in the email that she is a Black woman born and raised in Durham and that “the PA’s board is not predominantly white.”

“Setting certain Black voices against others, divides us against policies that would benefit people across race and class,” she added.

McKoy remains unconvinced.

“For those who think that just because People’s Alliance has black people and people of color in the organization and leadership that it can’t be racially discriminatory is like saying the same for any other organization like law enforcement or corporations, or saying that because an organization has women then it can’t sexually discriminate,” he said.

PA doesn’t mention race in its statement, but they do think Davis is not progressive enough. They think even less of his salary.

“With an annual salary of more than $200,000, the contract provides the manager with numerous perks, including seven weeks of vacation a year, term life insurance, and a hefty monthly vehicle allowance,” the statement reads. “In addition, the contract makes it nearly impossible for a board to hold the manager accountable for his performance or lack thereof absent a massive severance package.”

The county manager’s contract “makes it extremely lopsided against the community’s interests, especially as only one commissioner who voted in favor of the original contract still serves,” the statement continued. “These perks are far in excess of what other public employees receive in Durham and do not represent our values.”

Davis’s salary appears to be in line with the wages of neighboring county managers and commensurate with its population, however.

In 2019, the top administrator in Wake County earned $236,250 and $195,957 in Orange County, according to data from the University of North Carolina School of Government. County managers in Forsyth, Guilford and Mecklenburg earned $222,747, $203,027 and $312,319, respectively.

Soon after the PA statement was made public, Davis’s supporters came to his defense.

They pointed to Davis’s financial stewardship of Durham County that has made it a magnet for new businesses and corporations. For more than two decades, Durham County has been one of only 66 counties in the nation to benefit from a Triple A credit rating, which makes the county attractive to banks and companies. 

“Most cities in North Carolina would love to have Durham’s metrics,” Antonio Jones, the recently elected chairman of the Durham Committee of the Affairs of Black People, told the INDY this week.  

Jones also pointed to other accomplishments by Davis and his staff, such as per-pupil funding that ranks third in the state, affordable housing initiatives in a city and county beset by a housing crisis, along with a revised health care plan for county employees and a $15 hourly wage for non-teaching public school employees.

Jones said the effort to remove Davis is “part of a coordinated strategy and attack to diminish the work of the county manager and his staff.”

“The city and county managers positions are designed to be apolitical, but in Durham they have made both positions political,” Jones said about PA’s call for progressive city and county managers. “They say [Davis] is not progressive, but judging from the last two county managers, he’s the most progressive one we’ve ever had.”

This week, McKoy will submit a $20 million grant application for racial equity to the Kellogg Foundation as part of a global contest on how to rid the world of racial inequity. In his application, McKoy stated that Durham is the one place on earth that can be the leader in racial equity—where others can look, learn, and follow.  

“What the People’s Alliance put out on Monday is the antithesis of that statement and that claim by me,” he said. “I’m going to tell the world that we, Durham, are the model to learn from while we are publicly witnessing the attempted professional lynching of our county manager—with not one iota of presented information that called into question his qualifications or performance but instead offering only statements about his compensation package.”

McKoy said the PA Board’s statement is playing out “in a very public way to discredit the man.”

“I’ve seen it play out over and over again,” he said. “When Black people get to a certain level it rubs white people the wrong way.”

Davis’s tenure as county manager reached a racially polarizing flashpoint last year, when an incendiary letter he wrote accusing county Commissioner Heidi Carter of racism was made public. 

As previously reported in the INDY, the Board of Commissioners last year grappled with Davis’s election-season accusation that Carter was racially biased against him and other people of color. Carter denied his allegations, while Davis’s critics said he had an ulterior motive: His contract was up for renewal the following year, and with Carter gone, it might have stood a better chance at renewal. 

The case became even more polarizing in late April when former county commissioner chair Wendy Jacobs announced that Davis was the target of two independent investigations to determine if he sought to interfere in the March 3 primary election by writing the letter accusing Carter of racism.

The International City/County Managers Association found that Davis’s letter did not violate the organization’s code of conduct. An independent investigation also found there was no racist intent behind Carter’s remarks.

On Monday, the same day the PA board’s statement was posted, Durham County commissioners held a contentious meeting in which Commissioner Nimasheena Burns reminded Carter and Jacobs that an independent investigation last year by Duke University law professor James Coleman of Davis’s accusation against Carter found the two veteran commissioners had both made statements perceived by county employees as “racially and culturally inappropriate.” 

McKoy and Kenney were not the only observers who used the L-word while discussing PA’s statement.

During Monday’s meeting, the board opted not to approve a $50,000 contract to hire the Washington, D.C.-based, Black-owned Robert Bobb Group recommended by the county manager and attorney Lowell Siler for in-house training sessions in “the area of building consensus around controversial issues.” 

Board chair Brenda Howerton, who is Black, reportedly hotly responded this week to emails during the meeting from Nicholas Graber-Grace and Rogers, who were among five residents that questioned the RBG team’s history of privatizing public schools in Detroit and attacking public institutions.

According to the News & Observer, Howerton on Wednesday posted on Facebook a public statement and headline that read, “GO AHEAD LYNCH ANOTHER BLACK MAN,” which was addressed to Graber-Grace and Rogers. The post has been deleted.

Howerton told the INDY her post didn’t spring from frustration.

“As a Black mother of three Black sons, two which are dead, I have a sensitivity to how Black men are treated in this world, whether it be their lives or their careers,” she said.

Monday’s four-hour meeting grew more contentious toward the end when the commissioners went into closed session to discuss personnel matters.   

When the public session resumed, Howerton moved that Carter recuse herself from any discussions or involvement about the manager’s contract. Carter turned down the offer.

“We can take a vote if you want, but I will not be recusing myself. I don’t know how to be any clearer,” Carter said.

Howerton’s motion failed by a 3-2 vote, with Carter, Jacobs and Commissioner Nida Allam voting against it.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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