The Durham County Board of Commissioners on Thursday voted to not renew the contract of County Manager Wendell Davis.

Wendell Davis

He was immediately relieved of his duties, the board’s Vice Chair Wendy Jacobs told the INDY.

Davis was ousted by a 3 to 2 vote. Jacobs, who was joined by commissioners Heidi Carter and Nida Allam in voting against the renewal, said the board will choose an interim county manager.

Board Chair Brenda Howerton and Commissioner Nimasheena Burns cast the dissenting votes. 

Davis was not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon.

Howerton was among a chorus of voices that cried “lynching” in March when a statement from board members of the People’s Alliance asked county commissioners to not renew his contract, which ends next month. 

Howerton was no less critical after Thursday’s vote, saying the vote was fueled by racism and white privilege.

“This is one of the most racist days I have seen since the Jim Crow era,” Howerton told the INDY. “This is white women with their knees on the neck of a Black man. They refused to do an evaluation of his record. This was a vote of racism and hate.”

Before the vote was taken, Howerton read a statement to her fellow commissioners, which she shared with the INDY.

“We are here because last year, the county manager, Mr. Wendell Davis, had the audacity to call to our attention to the fact that he and county staff were experiencing racial bias by Commissioner Carter, a white woman,” Howerton wrote in the statement. “Since that time, this board has received confirmation (by a credible source) that a number of staff have, for some time, been negatively impacted (physically, mentally and emotionally) by witnessing or personally experiencing the racial trauma inflicted on the county manager and themselves by board members.”

Jacobs declined to comment about the circumstances around the vote when reached by the INDY; other commissioners could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sheila Huggins, chair of the Friends of Durham political action committee, called the county board’s vote disappointing.

“We need leadership that is focused on the needs of our residents,” Huggins wrote in a text to the INDY. “And while the number of new Covid cases is decreasing, there are many families and businesses that are still suffering. It will take many months, and maybe even years for our school children to overcome the educational challenges that they’ve had to endure. But all of this seems to be an afterthought for some of our elected officials. And unfortunately, it is our residents who will pay the price.”

Millicent Rogers, the People’s Alliance president, praised the move, stating that the People’s Alliance looks forward to “seeing our historic Board of Commissioners take the next steps in creating a Durham that is as progressive and diverse as its elected officials.”

“We are excited about seeing the policies enacted that will provide protections for the most vulnerable populations on issues like gentrification, LGBTQ+ protections, access to a fully funded educational structure in DPS, in the near future,” Rogers wrote in an email to the INDY. “It is also important for us that employees who are in toxic work environments are able to know that they are seen and heard. We stand in solidarity with employees who have long gone unheard. Today’s vote was a tough one for the Commission, but under their leadership Durham County, its employees and residents will have the ability to thrive under a new County Manager.”

The months leading up to the commissioners’ vote on Thursday were marked by hyper-racial sensitivities. Last year, one month before the election-season primaries, the county board dealt with accusations by Davis that Carter was racially biased against him and other people of color. 

Carter has denied those allegations.

Meanwhile, Davis’s critics said he had an ulterior motive: His contract was up for renewal the following year, and with Carter gone, he might have stood a better chance of staying on. 

The case became even more polarizing in April of last year, when Jacobs, then the commission’s chair, 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 by Duke University law professor James Coleman also found there was no racist intent behind Carter’s remarks.

Davis’s job security became a point of contention again in March when the People’s Alliance released a statement that called on the county to hire a new county manager with progressive philosophies in line with their ideals.

PA’s statement made clear that they did not think Davis was progressive enough. They thought 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 read. “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.”

But as previously reported by the INDY, Davis’s salary appeared to be in line with the wages of neighboring county managers and commensurate with its population.

Davis’s supporters, including Antonio Jones, chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs Black People, and Huggins with Friends of Durham, took issue with PA’s statement.

In response, Huggins wrote a letter to the county commissioners.

“You’ve been told that there’s a philosophical misalignment between the elected bodies and our hired public managers,” Huggins said in her letter. “This analysis creates a false narrative about what our residents have indicated regarding government service and representation.”

The letter went on to assert that “there is no one-size-fits-all political philosophy in Durham,” a remark to counter PA’s call for a more reliably liberal county manager. “Sometimes Durham is portrayed as having only one political ideology. It’s important to have different voices in the room where everyone can come together and frame an accurate picture of what’s going on.”

In her statement to the county board, Howerton said her fellow commissioners who voted against Davis’s renewal will be on the wrong side of history. 

“No matter how you rationalize it. No matter how many times you use racial equity language at every meeting, your actions speak much louder than any of your words,” Howerton said. “It is wrong. It is retaliatory. It is violent. It is racist.”

Davis was embroiled in another controversy during his tenure. In 2017, a former Durham County deputy manager sued Durham County, alleging that Davis demoted her and cut her pay in half after she competed against him in 2013 for the role of county manager. Welton ultimately withdrew her application and Davis was selected for the role. 

The INDY reported in 2017 that Marqueta Welton worked for Durham County in different roles from September 19, 2005, until her resignation on December 28, 2016. She filed a federal lawsuit naming the county, the Board of Commissioners, Davis, and human resources director Kathy Everett-Perry as defendants and said in the complaint that her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The suit said Welton was placed in a new position Davis was not authorized to create.

A district court judge dismissed most of the claims in Welton’s lawsuit in September 2018.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

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