Nancy McFarlane is tired of the bullshit.
Last Wednesday, Raleigh’s mayor announced that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term. The news only came as a surprise because, just a month ago, she was telling friends and advisers that she was still in.
It wasn’t hard to spot the straw that broke the camel’s back. McFarlane telegraphed it in her announcement: “We used to fight together for the things we cared about,” she said. “Now it seems like we just fight with each other. The mean politics of Twitter and social media is painful when it’s about you or someone that you love.”
She was most directly referring to a February 27 News & Observer story in which council member Kay Crowder accused her husband of “physically and verbally” assaulting her—Ron McFarlane reportedly yelled at Crowder, grabbed her by the shoulder, and shook her—during a confrontation after a Dix Park event. Crowder claimed to be “very shaken” by the experience.
McFarlane can take a punch, but she’s very protective of her family—in her mind, they’re absolutely off-limits. So if this was how her opponents were going to play the game, the game was no longer worth the aggravation.
It’s not like she needs it. She’s already secured her legacy with Dix Park and Union Station, not to mention eight years of growth and prosperity. She’ll leave office popular and respected. Besides, she’s never craved the limelight or seen this position as a stepping-stone toward another.
And she certainly doesn’t need the money. With Ron, McFarlane founded, built, and then sold a pharma business worth many millions of dollars.
Her successor will probably be well-off, too. It’s practically a job requirement.
That’s a problem.
The Raleigh mayor’s office pays $23,720 a year for an ostensibly part-time job that isn’t. That alone prevents people from running. Council member Nicole Stewart and former county commissioner John Burns have both said they can’t afford to be mayor because they can’t afford to give up their day jobs. We’ll never know who else might have run—businesspeople, activists, entrepreneurs—or what ideas they could have brought to the table.
And that raises a larger question: Raleigh is approaching a half-million residents. Why is it still governed like a small town?
Actually, it’s governed like a nonprofit. The council is the board of directors, which the mayor chairs. They appoint a city manager, the CEO, who runs the day-to-day. The mayor doesn’t have much power; she’s just one of eight council members.
In Raleigh, that became clear in December 2017. Members of the new council’s ascendant anti-development faction rejected McFarlane’s committee assignments—historically the mayor’s prerogative—and replaced them with their own, a show of dominance. Since then, McFarlane—the city’s highest-profile elected official—has often found herself frustrated in a minority.
This form of government is referred to as council-manager, and it’s most popular among cities with populations of less than 250,000, according to the UNC School of Government—in other words, what Raleigh was in 1995. It’s designed to take politics out of local government. But as cities grow, politics becomes inevitable—and inevitably ugly. And politics will eventually make a job with little power and a lot of hassle unattractive, even if money isn’t an issue, and especially when it is.
Raleigh needs a stronger mayor, someone who can present voters with an agenda, has the authority to put it in place, and then is accountable for the results. That sort of change, though, will require help from the General Assembly, which seems unlikely.
So let’s set a more reasonable goal that Raleigh can achieve of its own volition: Give the full-time mayor a full-time paycheck. Start making the job worth the bullshit.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman.