Welcome to the newest edition of By The Horns, a newsletter covering the Durham City Council. This series is intended to help guide those attempting to understand the mechanics of Durham city government, stay informed on issues throughout Durham, and learn the tools necessary to be a more engaged citizen.
After passing the 2023-24 budget at the June 20 meeting and then promptly leaving for a much-needed vacation in July, Durham City Council is back in session. Since the last meeting, the deadline to run for office has come and gone. Campaign signs are scattered across the streets, reminding us that the chaos that overtook city council leading up to June 20 is in no danger of going away now that even more voices are angling to be heard.
Call to Order
A Brief Summary of the Meeting
- The virtue for the month of August 2023 is Compassion.
- A brief update on SCAD was given by Robert Chapman, a member of the organizing group for the proposed amendments, during the August 10 work session. The most up-to-date version of the amendments can be found here.
For the first half of the four-hour meeting, members of the community expressed their frustration with the poor living conditions faced by the tenants of JFK Towers, an affordable housing complex for seniors in North Durham.
According to testimony from residents, these poor conditions, which include rats and insects, no AC, and a broken elevator, have been an issue for weeks with little-to-no response from the property manager Millennia Development. Terrell Dungey, a community organizer with American Friends Service Committee, worked with tenants to curate a formal “list of things that have gone wrong and the reasonable demands that they (the tenants) want to present to the city and to HUD” which Dungey shared at the meeting. (31:25)
After the initial complaints were brought to the city’s attention, city staff did an inspection and assessment of the property. Millennia Development was notified on July 19 about the violations, and were given 30 days to bring the building back to compliance with city code. (1:05:30)
Two representatives from Millennia Development were in attendance via ZOOM to respond to the concerns: Tom Mignogna, Vice President at Millennia Development, and Alexandra Thompson, Regional Property Director at JFK Towers. Mignogna and Thompson made admirable attempts to quell tensions in chamber during their rebuttal but residents and council members seemed unconvinced. (1:09:47)
The issue is ongoing but a number of folks mentioned that the situation at JFK Towers should be a wake-up call. As Durham grows, city staff will have more properties to monitor for compliance with fair living standards. This adds more dimensions to the already-complex and important discussion around housing stability in Durham.
The Candidate in the Arena
Election season has returned.
Campaigning is an unavoidable part of running for office. You need to get your message out into the discourse, especially as a newcomer. Spaces like City Hall become important battlegrounds for aspiring candidates. So it should surprise no one that three of the speakers during the JFK Towers discussion happened to be running for Mayor: Charlitta Burruss, Jontae Dunston, and Mike Woodard.
Woodard, a long-tenured politician and current State Senator, made no direct comments toward council, but Burruss and Dunston didn’t hold back when firing criticism directly at their opponents:
“When have you went out there and checked? I went out there. I was asked to come out there. Not because I’m running a political campaign. Because of a lot of us don’t show up until we run political campaigns and you want the organizations to endorse you and all that kinda foolishness. That is irrelevant. I want y’all to start caring about citizens. People that put you in. That’s us. You can pull all the organizations you want to, but at the end of the day, it’s us that vote you in.” - Charlitta Burruss (22:57)
“How dare y’all sit on this council and y’all supposed to be, I don’t want to say it, but a Black-majority city council and we’re allowing our residents to live like this situation. Now, I’m not up here for no political. I’m up here to talk based on what I’ve seen… It’s a big contradiction to see people try to keep jobs at the jobs they haven’t really been doing.” - Jontae Dunston (46:57)
Both Burruss and Dunston have spoken at recent council meetings and been involved in various community initiatives. The fact that they spoke at the first meeting held since the filing deadline is not inherently “political.” What’s odd is that they made a point to distance themselves from their campaign. Speaking for three minutes in front of a live audience seems like a prime opportunity for any candidate to showcase their credentials, capped off by a “and that’s why if I was mayor, this wouldn’t happen!”
Inevitably, more candidates will make their presence felt at City Hall leading up to Election Day. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a tailor-made platform to assert their position in a crowded race. The question is, will voters receive it as genuine concern or pandering?
Politicians at all levels are faced with this balancing act. Be authentic while also attracting new voters outside your network. Those two things aren’t always at odds. Nonetheless, candidates will have to find creative ways to separate themselves from the pack.
The challenge for the four members of council running in the election is overcoming their record, both as individuals and as a unit. Some voters will distinguish certain councilors as “bad apples” while others might consider the entire tree rotten. Challengers like Burruss and Dunston are well-suited to take shots at council for poor governance, but it only works if they have robust positions of their own to counter with.
One of my favorite pieces of writing (which I keep on my about page) is excerpted from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt titled The Man in the Arena. It begins with the phrase, “it is not the critic who counts; not the one who points out how the strong one stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
If challengers are preparing to show up at City Hall and pick a fight, they’ll have to come with more than just jabs. To win a fight in this arena, you need a good hook.
If you haven’t read it, check out Matt Hartman’s recent piece in the INDY about the upcoming election. Matt does a wonderful job reviewing the noteworthy moments at City Hall leading up to now while giving insight into where things might be headed.
It’s officially been a year since the first edition of By The Horns! What a helluva ride. I continue to appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow through the process of publishing this newsletter.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some exciting updates! Thank you so much to everyone who has supported this work over the last year.
Buddy Ruski will be back in your inbox soon. Stay tuned!