Name as it appears on the ballot: Sherri Zann Rosenthal
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: SZRforCouncil.com
Occupation & employer: Not employed
Years lived in Durham: 48
1) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe Durham faces and how you believe the city should address them.
The Crippling of Durham City Government
I really believe in the power and potential of local government. As I’ve watched the actions of the current four-member majority on City Council, it’s painful to see them hollow out the City’s capacity to deliver core services.
We need to restore our city government, including rebuilding our decimated workforce. From bad streets to a dysfunctional 911 Call Center—which hasn’t met minimum standards for over 4 1/2 years!—the results of defunding the city’s core services are becoming clear.
All employees should immediately be made whole for the 2019 salary plan, which was frozen in 2020. Making the employees “whole” means they should be be given the pay and benefits they would have received if the pay plan had not been frozen. The City Council should amend the budget to do so, and has the money.
We must make the City of Durham an attractive workplace once again in order to recruit successfully. It is unfair to our remaining workers to have them stretched so thin, covering multiple positions’ demands, because of high vacancy rates in most departments, including over 40% in Public Works, 40% in 911, and over 28% in the police department.
Affordable Housing and Community Preservation
If we’re to keep Durham Durham, we have to turn away from policies that favor displacement and demolition and instead emphasize investment and renewal.
All development decisions should aim to enhance the vitality of our neighborhoods, as well as include planning for climate disruption, and to minimize the storm and fire events we know are coming.
We need a Comprehensive Housing Plan, which we have never had, to identify what types of housing, in what locations and price ranges we currently have, and what we need. Disrupting the viciously predatory low end of the rental housing market should be included in the plan, as should a plan to preserve existing affordable housing.
Safety and Crime
Durham will never reach its potential unless get a handle on gun violence and crime. Safe, reliable housing and jobs with decent wages are important goals that I believe will lower our crime rates. I also believe we must have a functional 911 Call Center and fully-staffed police department, and move to fix those departments immediately. Our police training should center on de-escalation.
If elected to City Council, I’ll request a report from the City Manager each month on what she has done in the past four weeks to fix 911.
2) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the city council and as an advocate for the issues that you believe are important?
I have deep public policy experience, and a history of getting things done.
I retired 3 years ago as Deputy City Attorney. Before that, I created a 22-home neighborhood that is still considered the most energy-efficient in NC. In addition, I spent a year in England studying town planning from a European perspective. I was hired by the City for my experience creating housing, to help create the City’s varied affordable housing programs.
I’m the only candidate who has actually created housing.
I started as a legal aid attorney, specializing in representing tenants and using the Community Reinvestment Act to challenge big banks. When I was a young teen my family was plunged into poverty. That was one of the reasons I chose to become a legal aid attorney. I have a different perspective than those who’ve never been poor.
A big part of my career was with the city because I believe local government affects our daily lives the most, and can contribute to solving our pressing problems. I have an understanding of City government grounded in the nitty-gritty of daily operations. I’m trained in all the legal authority the City has in its toolbox, and how to use it in creative ways. I’ve seen a long arc of the organization’s history and understand how we got where we are today.
I feel my perspective is valuable, but know that the person standing a few feet from me has a different perspective that is also valuable. I am inquisitive, persistent, direct and always open to revising my views.
3) What’s the best or most important thing the city council has done in the past year? Alternatively, name a decision you believe the council got wrong or an issue you believe the city should have handled differently. Please explain your answer.
The most important thing the 4-vote majority of the City Council has done is also the most damaging thing it has done: Give developers just about everything they want.
This Council majority has changed Durham in ways that will be difficult to remedy. The poor quality sprawl they’ve approved has wreaked great environmental damage in SE Durham. They also ignore the need for community infrastructure and road improvements in developing areas.
Sprawl on the outskirts is paired with demolition and displacement for in-city neighborhoods. See my answer to Question 6 for more detail.
Less obvious is the dumbing-down of Durham’s rezoning approval process. Now the rezoning application is mostly check boxes. This means at the City Council rezoning hearing, when the City has the most leverage, there is very little substantive information about proposed development’s environmental and community impacts, or how much affordable housing it does—or does not—include.
Developers want to maximize profits. The City Council is given authority over development as a check and balance, to assert and protect the interests of the community as a whole. I don’t believe the current City Council majority has acted on behalf of our community’s interests.
4) The city has seen an uptick in shootings since last year, including recent tragic homicides that claimed the lives of children. Gun violence is obviously a multifaceted problem with no simple solution at the local level. But, in your view, what can or should the city be doing to stem the tide of violence that it isn’t doing now?
Our community won’t really thrive until we get a handle on violence. I favor a three-part approach, but think the ideas of the residents of neighbors most affected by crime and violence should be given priority:
1. Youth Opportunities and Safe Spaces. Job opportunity and education for youth, including expanded trades education. Southern High School is the only school currently offering the skilled trades program. Expanded evening recreation. The City used to offer late night rec center hours, and should again. The 2021 Youth survey documented that young people do not feel safe at school. We need to make sure rec centers are safe, and feel that way to young people.
2. Coordinated Community Safety Programs. HEART plus a renewed police department. The only positive things about our 28%+ police deparmtne vacancy rate is it gives us an opportunity to hire people who support community service centered on de-escalation. Both the police academy and on-going training should emphasize de-escalation strategies. I support HEART. But HEART is a crisis intervention program. The General Assembly’s defunding of residential mental health services has left many in our community without the long-term treatment and support they need.
3. Fix 911. Call 911 today, sometimes no one answers. It’s been like that for over four years! Simply unacceptable. The 911 Call Center has a 40% vacancy rate, according to the N&O.
I would get rid of Shotspotter and spend the savings on youth services.
5) What can or should the city be doing to support people who are not in control of their own housing (including renters, the unhoused, and those whose homes are owned by banks) as costs of living skyrocket?
The City needs to create a Comprehensive Housing Plan, described in the answer to #1.
Here are key policy levers the City can use creatively:
1. The residential minimum housing code is very underutilized and underfunded. It could be used as part of a comprehensive housing plan providing incentives and fines.
2. The City should disrupt the predatory low end of the private rental market.
3. Redirect the City’s grant to Legal Aid toward systemic action that disrupts predatory systems, rather than simply individual representation. Years ago, I was the Legal Aid housing attorney in Durham, and always aimed for what we called “impact litigation.”
6) Describe your vision for sustainable growth and development in Durham, including your view of how Expanding Housing Choices has impacted Durham’s communities and built environment since the policy’s passage in 2019; your thoughts on SCAD and the extent to which developers should be involved in shaping the city’s zoning codes; and an example of a municipality you believe has made smart decisions related to growth and development that could be similarly implemented in Durham.
We want a walkable, bike-able green city with neighborhoods designed to foster healthy interaction. We want fresh air and sunlight for gardens. Durham should be implementing sustainable development policies for our own good, but climate disruption gives us dire incentive to consider the environment, storm and fire resilience in everything we do.
To get this, we need to curtail sprawl and be conscious, deliberate about densifying the city to gain affordable housing, preserve the tree canopy, keep storm water clean and avoid flooding, and plan for wild fire prevention.
We now know what we didn’t in 2019 when Expanding Housing Choices (EHC) was passed: the real estate industry has a national PR campaign to press for housing deregulation by claiming it will reduce prices.
It does not. A national study of over 40 cities that allowed increased density concluded that these policies produced no statistically verifiable reduction in prices. What did? Policies that directly require and incentivize affordability. See “Land-use reforms and housing costs: Does allowing for increased density lead to greater affordability?” in Urban Studies Journal 1–22.
Most of EHC is fine, like accessory dwelling units. It’s the small lot option that has fueled tear-downs, gentrification and big tree canopy losses.
The small lot option enables demolition of the most naturally affordable houses in Durham. Homes developers buy for $250,000 to $375,000 have been replaced with three or four small new homes, each selling for $500,000 and up.
SCAD is the small lot option on steroids, plus provisions that deregulate significant commercial development as well as housing. It comes right out of the real estate industry deregulation playbook, and is a prime example of regulatory capture, where an industry attempts to write its own regulations. The provisions themselves are often ambiguously written.
Developers should have a voice in how the development ordinance pursues its goals, but the goals and values come from the residents in the form of the Comprehensive Plan. All good ideas should be pursued, wherever their source.
I believe Cary has banned mass grading, and I would support Durham doing the same. Mass grading removes all the trees and vegetation and regrades the land to minimize elevation changes, so that cheaper slab-on-grade construction can be used. It destroys the top soil and results in terrible storm water erosion and kills creeks from the suffocating sediment levels.
7) In August, the city released a report showing lead-contaminated soil in several parks in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Durham. What can or should the city be doing to address existing environmental injustices and prevent further environmental racism as Durham expands?
The “lead in the parks” issue is really about incinerator and coal ash in the parks. Lead is only one of the toxic elements in incinerator and coal ash. I began pressing for other heavy metals testing at the City Hall meeting on June 29. The city’s testing of a few areas has documented that arsenic, cobalt and manganese are among the other toxic elements in some city parks, in addition to lead.
The way the city handled this issue further eroded community trust. It is clear that the Parks and Recreation Department knew about the incinerator ash in the parks and the lead levels found by the Duke team in the Fall of 2022, yet Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell stated on June 29, 2023, that the City didn’t know about it until June 1st.
The restoration of trust will be difficult, but is absolutely necessary for the city to take effective action to address environmental racism and racism in delivery of other services. The community is simply a vital source of information that has to be engaged, and they won’t be if they don’t trust city staff and leadership.
So what now? I serve on the community group working on the parks issue. The City should be coordinating with that group and sharing information to involve residents in shaping future plans.
Systematic involvement of residents should be incorporated into all facets of city government. That’s the best way to avoid racism in future city actions.
8) What are the city’s most pressing transit needs?
I think it is embarrassing that the federal government had to tell Durham three times that it wouldn’t fund rail mass transit here. Why did your City Council continue to waste money on this when the handwriting was on the wall? $157 million dollars spent on the light rail plan, and now we don’t yet know how much was wasted on the commuter rail plan derailed by the feds last spring.
The most pressing transit need is to figure out how to get people out of their cars. Public transit needs to be convenient, safe and reasonably-priced to do that. Solving this would go along way toward cleaning our air, lessening greenhouse gas emissions, and freeing up space in our city, among other big benefits.
Women’s safety is a crucial component for the success of any public transit alternatives to cars. The high rates of violence against women will keep us choosing to surround ourselves with the steel cage of a car, especially at night, unless we feel safe with the alternatives. We’ve got to solve the problem of getting to the transit and from the transit back home, not just safety while using the public transit.
9) What can or should the city be doing to uplift low-wage workers? To uplift small businesses?
Here’s an example of what not to do to small businesses: Give permission to developers of large buildings to block off major streets for weeks or months at a time without notice to local businesses affected, and without trying to lessen the impact on those businesses. In fact, the city is supposed to provide notice to those businesses affected prior to blocking off road lanes or the whole street. However, in my conversations with businesses located on Main Street, that hasn’t been happening.
An attitude of uplift for our local businesses would go a long way, keeping them in mind when such a road closure is being considered, limiting the consecutive days for such closures, looking for other ways to spotlight and promote them.
We should create upward career paths to help people use existing skills to build toward higher paying jobs through the city’s Workforce Development program.
I wrote into the city’s livable wage ordinance a provision that allowed the city to require its contractors to pay employees no less than the city’s livable wage when doing city work. It was in effect for about a dozen years before the General Assembly prohibited such provisions.
Still, the livable wage ordinance remains useful. It sets the minimum wage that the city pays its own employees, and that amount automatically advances because I wrote it to be set annually by calculating equation that uses objective third party metrics. In this way, the city’s livable wage provides a neutral measure that can be used as an organizing tool by workers to advocate for better pay.
10) How do you currently, or how do you plan to, engage with constituents across all of Durham’s demographics? Building on that response, how do you currently, or how do you plan to, weigh differing insights from constituents, fellow council members, city staff, and advisory committees when coming to a decision on a vote?
The most important thing the city can do to include resident ideas into government is to systematically incorporate it.
Right now, resident participation goes from one extreme to another. You can serve on an advisory board, which requires attending meeting after meeting without clear results, which many people don’t have time for. Or you can show up at a ‘hearing’ on a City Council item, which consists of each person getting two or three minutes speaking into a mic one by one. At that point, the discussion is a polarized yes or no. Then the City Council takes a vote immediately after, making clear that the decision had already been made. It doesn’t feel sincere.
Instead, I think residents should be invited to a meeting to collaboratively set the prioritized values for a matter before the solution is designed. The meeting results would be a public record. The prioritized values set by the community should be those used by staff to design a solution.
Durham has used this process, sometimes called a ‘charette’ in the past. The great thing about it is that people get to hear why a value is important to the person who suggested it, what happened to make it matter. It’s a process that tends to create bridges and empathy instead of polarization. There are three people at the UNC School of Government available to consult with local governments about participatory processes.
If elected, I’ll have a monthly newsletter to keep residents informed about what happened at the last two City Council meetings, and what is expected at the upcoming two meetings, so people know an issue of concern to them will be addressed. I also plan to hold an every other month open meeting to discuss current issues.
11) How should Durham’s city council address first responder vacancies?
The very first thing to do is to immediately make all employees whole for the 2019 pay plan that was frozen in 2020. It’s not just our fire and police departments and 911 Call Center that have high vacancy rates. Public Works is said to be down over 50% compared to pre-Covid staffing levels. Most city departments are very understaffed, with staff covering multiple jobs’ functions and stressed out.
Making employees whole involves back pay for what they would have received if the 2019 pay plan had not been frozen, and ensuring that their pay level going forward is what it would have been. Then, a cost of living increase should be considered.
I have a pay stub from a four and half year firefighter who is making $16.59 per hour. We have workers on the job for four and five years being paid as if they are still in their first year.
No wonder many of our employees get letters recruiting them to work for other local governments. Those other employers pay them for their actual years of experience.
After pay is fixed, there is a respect issue. The way some council members speak to employees is resented. It created bad feeling when City Council knew about the high vacancy rate, yet did nothing to restore the 2019 pay plan when the financial uncertainties of Covid were over.
There is an underlying feeling on the part of the police that some City Council members are defunding their department through a back door.
Setting a new tone of openness, respect and straight-forward communication will be necessary if we are to restore our city government, including our first responders.
12) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
If elected, I’ll work to bring light to dark corners of City Hall. I know how to find information and public records, and I will share that information with the public. If we activate the amazing residents of Durham, really give people constructive ways to participate, I think we’ll unleash amazing, creative solutions.
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.