In December, Raleigh City Council member David Cox fired off an email seeking an investigation into and possible disciplinary action against Robert Massengill, the director of public utilities. As the INDY first reported last week, at issue was a sewer project in Northeast Raleigh. Cox wanted Massengill to relocate pipes to a wetland rather than dig up his constituents’ backyards. Massengill thought that wasn’t a viable option.
Cox did not return three phone calls seeking comment for that story. On Facebook this weekend, however, he denied that he was angry when he sent the email. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote.
While five high-ranking City Hall sources have told the INDY that Cox has berated staffers when he didn’t get his way, another high-level staffer says this feeling isn’t universal, and his interactions with Cox have been nothing but professional.
The Massengill email wasn’t Cox’s first time seeking recriminations against a city official. Six months earlier, he’d initiated an investigation into planning commissioner Eric Braun following a heated planning commission meeting involving a project in Cox’s district. The city attorney did not sustain misconduct allegations against either Braun or Massengill.
The emails that launched those probes may violate the code of conduct the council updated in 2017, says former council member Mary-Ann Baldwin. The code was updated to limit the council’s interference with staff and advisory boards, Baldwin says—and was designed with Cox in mind.
“That’s why we formed a task force [to update the code of conduct]. It was really about managing this kind of behavior,” says Baldwin, who left the council at the end of 2017. “There have been instances where Mr. Cox had attacked staff on Twitter and on social media, and those are reasons why we felt we needed some guidance with the creation of the code.”
“There have been instances where Mr. Cox had attacked staff on Twitter and on social media, and those are reasons why we felt we needed some guidance,” says Mary-Ann Baldwin.
When it came up for a vote, Cox was the lone dissenter. He argued that it conflicted with the First Amendment.
The code says that “all comments about staff performance should only be made to the city manager’s office through private correspondence or conversation” and instructs council members to “not get involved in administrative functions.”
City attorney Robin Tatum Currin did not respond to a question about whether Cox’s emails violated these edicts. The code of conduct is toothless in any event. The council can censure members for violating it, but there are no penalties.
Cox’s decision to copy the entire council on his complaints could pose a different problem: It publicizes a personnel matter and potentially waives attorney-client privilege, making his complaint a public record, says attorney and open-government advocate Jonathan Jones.
“Sometimes a city council member is raising a concern that the public ought to know about,” Jones says. “But sometimes they are raising concerns that are frankly petty, so the city manager ought to be a buffer there.”
Cox declined to comment Monday.
On May 24, the planning commission met to review changes to the 2030 Comprehensive Plan for the Falls of Neuse corridor, which included a lot at the corner of Raven Ridge and Falls of Neuse Road. Residents who had previously opposed the development of the eighteen-acre site—and who helped kill a controversial Publix proposal down that street, an effort that catapulted Cox into office in 2015—attended the meeting. Eager to voice their perspectives, they became “boisterous,” says commission chairman Rodney Swink.
Swink says he and then-chairman Eric Braun, who declined to comment, tried to calm the crowd. John Purves, who was at the meeting, says Braun became “a little aggressive,” and his demeanor “was a little inappropriate, unprofessional.” But Purves, a former trial attorney, brushed off the incident and apologized to Braun afterward. A few days later, Cox asked him what happened.
On June 3, Cox emailed the entire city council, city manager Ruffin Hall, and interim city attorney Dottie Leapley to seek an investigation into Braun’s conduct.
“I have received a number of complaints regarding Mr. Braun’s conduct during Planning Commission meeting. How do you want to address them?” Cox asked.
Hall replied that he’d get back to Cox and said he was unfamiliar with any complaints.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane responded June 5 and asked Cox to disclose where the complaints were coming from and provide details about Braun’s alleged misdeeds. “Your response is vague,” she wrote.
Cox replied that Purves and resident Tim Niles had complained. “I defer to those in attendance to explain their concerns.”
Subsequent replies were redacted. Tatum Currin told the INDY in an email that the city attorney’s office “determined that there was no wrongdoing by Mr. Braun, and that his actions at the Planning Commission Meetings were proper and appropriate.”
Six months later, when Cox initiated the investigation into Massengill—accusing Massengill of misleading him “either accidentally or willfully”—McFarlane scolded Cox, saying that requesting immediate disciplinary action was “totally inappropriate.” Council members shouldn’t influence project management or tell staffers how to do their jobs, McFarlane wrote.
“All staff should be respected, and problems resolved without accusatory and inflammatory comments,” McFarlane added. “If council members abuse this privilege, I would suggest to the [city manager] that he reconsider the methods by which the council members interact and communicate with our staff.”
A month later, Cox and Massengill organized a public meeting to address residents’ concerns about the sewer project, Cox wrote on Facebook this weekend. “Going forward,” he said, “I will continue to work with staff and the homeowners to facilitate communications and mitigate the impacts of this project as much as possible.”
Council member Corey Branch says he didn’t vote to change the code of conduct to police any one person’s behavior.
“It came out of a byproduct of everything you see across the country, across the board, how some elected officials have just been disrespectful with how they communicate and talk to staff as well as each other,” he says. “Councilor Cox did not vote for the code of conduct, so I guess he feels his emails were in his right. I personally would not have sent those emails. I would never ask for someone’s job blatantly. I know I wouldn’t have communicated in such a manner.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.