The Oxford Road sidewalk was a turning point, David Knight says.
Five years ago, when he lived in Five Points, he ran along that road, and like many in his neighborhood, he thought that replacing the well-worn dirt path next to it was a no-brainer.
But in January, Raleigh City Council member Stef Mendell convinced her colleagues to kill the sidewalk project, though it was several years and $20,000 in the making, citing the complaints of a few residents.
Mendell has since reversed course, and the sidewalk is back on track, but Knight’s mind was made up: A vague feeling that he should do more for his community had turned into a very real desire to take Mendell’s seat.
But when he disclosed his plans to his boss at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a nonprofit business incubator under the N.C. Department of Commerce, he was told he’d have to give up his job as director of the Outdoor Recreation Industries Office, which pays six figures, to run for city council, a part-time gig that pays about $17,000 a year.
He plans to resign on Wednesday, Knight told the INDY last week.
“It’s unfortunate, and I think I could have done both,” Knight says. “I had to choose, and I’ve chosen to run.”
There’s nothing in state law that requires such a choice. State employees can run for political office so long as they don’t use their employer’s time or public funds.
This week, mayoral candidate Caroline Sullivan stepped down as executive director at the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, which operates out of the governor’s office, though she remains a senior adviser.
Patrick Buffkin, a candidate for the District A city council seat, is a staff attorney at the N.C. Utilities Commission. He says his employers have accommodated his desire to seek public office.
“We’ve developed an arrangement that would put the appropriate safeguards in place make sure I can get my work done and also get in touch with the folks in North Raleigh that I want to represent on council,” Buffkin says.
Knight thinks he could have made a similar deal with the EDP. After all, it’s nothing new for state employees to seek local office—and isn’t surprising for a region that hosts the state government, several large public universities, and has part-time governing bodies. Longtime Carrboro mayor Lydia Lavelle, for example, is a professor at N.C. Central’s law school.
Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel to the General Assembly, worked for the state when he was a Chapel Hill Town Council member in the late seventies. It wasn’t a conflict, but it was a lot of work, Cohen says.
“There’s no flat ban on state employees running for nonpartisan office other than you can’t campaign on state time,” he says.
It’s unclear why the EDP forced Knight to step down to run. Christopher Chung, the partnership’s CEO, declined to comment for this story.
Knight, fifty, calls himself a business-minded environmentalist. He’s the first person to head the EDP’s Outdoor Recreation Industries Department, which aims to connect businesses to state resources. Outdoor recreation, he points out, a $28 billion-a-year industry.
“For a long time, I have believed that Raleigh was on the right track,” Knight says. “Now, it seems we have lost that strong leadership, and the city’s not moving forward.”
He argues that Mendell is part of a council clique that caters to a vocal minority while overlooking the bigger picture—and decisions like the Oxford Road sidewalk display a tendency to disregard the opinions of the city’s staff.
Downtown development, Knight says, should focus on multimodal connectivity that gives residents a variety of transportation options, with sidewalks being the most basic element.
“I’m very confident my constituents are happy with my representation and my outreach and engagement with them,” Mendell told the INDY Monday. “I know not everyone is happy with every decision I’ve made and every vote I’ve taken, but the vast majority of people—the support is pretty overwhelming.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at email@example.com.
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