David Cox first made his mark on Raleigh politics in 2015, leading hundreds of neighbors in a zoning fight that kept Publix from landing a grocery store near their north Raleigh homes. He was elected to the city council later that year, defeating longtime incumbent John Odom, who was seen as friendly to developers.
However, in the matter of how citizens can best get their ideas on zoning across to city officials, Cox is now up against Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who won three-quarters of the citywide vote when elected to a third term in 2015.
Cox, a computer scientist, is a major backer of Raleigh’s Citizen Advisory Councils. These grassroots groups, nineteen throughout the city, have helped guide the city council’s zoning decisions for more than four decades and have roots in neighborhood activism and fair-housing disputes. Now the city is considering overhauling how it receives input from residentsand critics fear that those changes could tilt the balance of power in favor of developers.
McFarlane maintains that with about 500 active members across a city of 470,000 people, the CACs don’t reflect the way citizens prefer to interact with government in the twenty-first century.
“We’re trying to move to a place where we can engage as many people as possible,” McFarlane says. “We’re not trying to dis the CACs. None of this is set in stone. Fundamentally, we are trying to empower people.”
The councils date from the 1970 tenure of Clarence Lightner, the first black Raleigh mayor and the first to be popularly elected. (Previously, council members elected mayors from their own ranks.) CAC boosters cite the role they played in stopping the Publix and the proposed Coker development on Oberlin Road in the 2000s, as well as the lower-profile activities of meetings that typically draw a few dozen members.
“A lot of people have busy lives and they don’t always go to the CACs,” Cox says. “But when there are rezoning cases that affect people’s lives, they do turn out.”
McFarlane favors the approach of a task force, commissioned last year, that’s proposing a council-appointed boardas well as revamped citizen committeesto gather input on land use. With notification of proposed zoning changes increased from one hundred to five hundred feet and other improvements, she argues, the proposed new processes will better serve neighbors.
“People are always afraid of change,” she says.
The nine-member citizen engagement task force, led by A.J. Fletcher Foundation director Damon Circosta, compared community-input organizations in forty U.S. cities. Its recommendations included the expanded notice of zoning changes and additional levels of communication between the council and grassroots organizations.
On May 1, the council adoptedsort ofa proposal to replace the CACs with the new Community Engagement Board. Cox voted against the move, along with council members Corey Branch and Kay Crowder. Russ Stephenson, Mary-Ann Baldwin, Bonner Gaylord, and Dickie Thompson joined McFarlane in supporting the new board.
Even though the council agreed to form the CEB, the debate was contentious enough that members put off a decision on what exactly the CEB would do. Instead, at Stephenson’s instigation, they decided to meet in a more informal work session to forge the details.
Branch says he voted against the CEB because of the uncertainty over what it would do. But even with eight CACs in his district, he’s not opposed to making changes. “I think the recommendations are a good starting point,” Branch says. “My issue was adopting it before we really had a chance to vet it. I feel the CACs are antiquated in some areas. We haven’t done any revamping since they were created.”
The decades-old councils can be a charged subject for activists such as Octavia Rainey, who started serving on one in 1980. The formation of the councils helped make Raleigh eligible for federal Community Development Block Grants, which required civic engagement, she points out.
“Moving this to a board is not the way this should go,” Rainey contends. “What the city should do is invest in the boards they have.”
Raleigh allocates $1,000 to each CAC annually, and city officials have to sign off on how the money is spent.
Bob Geary, a former INDY columnist who now chairs the Hillsborough CAC, says the councils have served to counter pro-growth fervor built on a thriving construction industry as well as Raleigh’s status as a top-rank destination for newcomers.
“Removing the CACs from rezoning cases doesn’t strike me as step one to improving citizen engagement, let alone citizen participation, in the biggest sphere of municipal government, which is land use and development,” Geary says. “It strikes me, rather, as the latest step in pushing citizens to the bleachers while the professionals play the game.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Twilight of the Amateurs .”