Wake County is a big place, and the half-hour drive from Raleigh to Zebulon, on Wake’s eastern edge, is a reminder that much of the county is sparsely developed, politically conservative and uninterested in public transportation. Led by a 4-3 Republican majority, the Wake Board of Commissioners has refused to allow county voters to decide whether to tax themselveswith a half-cent sales tax hikefor transit improvements.

But Raleigh, in the center of the county, is urbanizing. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with a population of 420,000not quite half of the county’s totalthat’s increasing by 3 percent a year. Previously, Raleigh’s growth took the form of sprawl. It can’t take that form any longer, because almost all of the city’s rural lands are gonecovered by tract housingor they’re protected within a watershed or a park.

Thus, the city’s 2030 comprehensive plan calls for 60 percent of future growth to be located along a dozen or so road or rail-transit corridors. High-density projects in these locations are to be supportednot by high-density car traffic, because the roads can’t handle the loadbut by new bus and rail alternatives.

But as Mayor Nancy McFarlane said, as she welcomed her fellow City Council members to their annual retreat Monday at Five County Stadium in Zebulon, “We’re asking the development community to step up and develop around these transportation locations, but we’re not providing the transportation.”

Under the law enacted four years ago by the General Assembly, only a few counties, including Orange, Wake and Durham, are allowed to levy the half-cent transit tax with voter approval. Raleigh cannot levy it without Wake County’s consent. Still, Raleigh officials want the growth. Many new projects in the city are highly dense and car-laden. Something has to give.

Transportation set the stage for a discussion Monday that was unlike anything heard from the council in years. It was remarkable for the degree of consensus among the eight members, who so often disagree. Even more remarkable was what they agreed about:

  • The council must move public transit ahead in Raleigh, with or without the county tax.

  • To do so, the council will consider putting a first-ever transit bond issue before the Raleigh voters, perhaps as soon as the fall 2013 elections. It may be paired with a road-improvement bond. City bond issues are repaid mainly from property taxes.

  • To earn support, the mayor and council want to be empowered and given some staff to communicate with the public on issues such as transit and economic development. As it stands, the mayor and council are completely dependent on the city manager and his staffers.

  • Raleigh’s system of government, with the city manager acting as a CEO and the council functioning like a volunteer board of directors, is unsuited to a city with national ambitions. Such a city requires major public investmentsand a public that understands why they’re being asked to pay for them.

The conversation, in a restaurant meeting room overlooking the baseball stadium, covered many bases over nearly seven hours. The divisions within the council weren’t magically erased: John Odom is still a Republican; Mary-Ann Baldwin still found a reason to slam Thomas Crowder.

With City Manager Russell Allen and two dozen staffers watching intently, council members treaded lightly on the subject of why they feel unsupported when delving into policy matters that, as elected officials, the public expects them to tackle.

Still, six of the eightall but Baldwin and Weeks, who rarely spokesaid they wanted help in conducting research, identifying the best practices of other cities, and answering constituent requests for action on items ranging from a broken curb to an overbearing fire inspector.

In fact, Odom, the Republican, and Bonner Gaylord, a political independent with Republican ties, were the most outspoken about the difficulties of balancing a full-time job in the private sector with the supposedly part-time but extremely labor-intensive job of city council member.

“We can theoretically handle all the requests” from constituents, Gaylord said, “but we can’t do it well. We need some help.”

Council members receive $10,000 a year; the mayor is paid $15,000. They recently voted themselves a raise of $1,000 a year for the next five years, their first since 1987.

Staff for the mayor and council consists of a trio of administrative assistants who are hired by the manger, as required by the city’s weak mayor-strong manager form of government.

Council members recently discovered that in Austin, Texasanother high-flying capital to which Raleigh frequently compares itselfthe mayor has five aides and council members three each. They’re not asking for anything like that in Raleigh. But, Gaylord added, “If I had one person, it would be a lot better situation.”

When Baldwin suggested that council pay be increased so members could do the job full-time, Randy Stagner disagreed. Also a political independent, he’s a retired military officer. “I’m telling you, because I basically do the job full-time, you’re still going to need the staff,” Stagner said. “The staff we have now is insufficient.”

Allen, the city manager, urged caution, warning that the public might disapprove of council members getting aides while other city agencies have cut staff because of the recession. Allen suggested that council members let him assess what they need.

“I think Russell’s exactly right, there may be a lot of controversy about this,” Odom responded. “But I think we need to have that conversation and get it out.”

Beyond a tussle over who’s in chargethe elected officials or the appointed managerthe discussion of staffing was also about the city’s historic approach to government: Keep taxes low and public investments to a minimum. Sewers and streetsand sometimes sidewalkswere paid for by developers.

Allen, speaking up for this conservative tack, reminded council members, “We’re a low-cost government.” He urged them to weigh investing tax revenues in major infrastructure improvements against such “practical” things as police officers and fire stations.

With McFarlane taking the lead, however, a majority of the council pushed back. The kind of growth Raleigh wants to encourage, Stephenson and Gaylord said, will require public sector investments to come first and be made in the best locations.

Strategic investments, Stephenson said, will “incentivize” business people to build in Raleigh and developers to put new housing and stores where people can reach them without getting in a car. “We can’t expect the private sector to take on the whole burden,” Stephenson said. “We need the public to make the transportation investments.”

For his part, Gaylord said he’d tried to give up his car for Lent. But he couldn’t, because Raleigh’s bus system is so scant and undependable. That won’t do as Raleigh tries to recruit high-tech companies and entrepreneurs who can choose their locations based on quality-of-life standards. “A real city,” Gaylord said, “has transportation options.”