Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bell versus Stith

Thomas Stith scares me. As much as I respect him for the fire shut up in his bones, I’m afraid that he’s more mad scientist than friendly family doctor. Tuesday’s election to determine who will lead the city of Durham as Mayor is a fight for the spirit of the city. Will we continue down the path of building bridges or will we, under the leadership of Stith, see the unraveling of collaboration as we have come to celebrate.

With all the bad that has hit the front pages of our local newspapers, life Durham, NC is much better today than when I first arrived in 1988. One of the truths related to life in Durham has been the tension our local governments have received for the mishandling of public funds. This coupled with an expanding achievement gap between black and white students, drop-outs and youth violence, Durham constantly fights the perception that it is the worst place to live in North Carolina.

Stith claims that he offers a fresh approach to the recent handling of government affairs. He offers an alternative to Bill Bell’s reckless management of a city that has been cited for the handling of a smoky yard-waste fire in the summer of 2006, the failure to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards, and the treatment of the Duke Lacrosse case. Stith contends that his management style will force more accountability.

The contention that Durham is in need of change can’t be refuted. At issues is the job performance of City Manager Patrick Baker. Bell has been open in his critique of Baker, and has acknowledged that his job is on the line. More critical than Baker’s performance is a reasonable assessment of the assumptions we make related to the role of the Mayor.

Bell has offered a more hands on approach to the office. Prior to his tenure, the Mayor served as a glorified member of the city council. Bell has taken a more active position and, as a consequence, is under attack for the way in which he has shifted the function of the office in Durham.

Stith’s attack of Bell paves the way for an even more active person in the office. His evaluation of Bell assumes the role of manager of the City Manager and all supervised by the City Manager. Are we prepared to support a mayor with the power of those within a more mayor centered system?

Stith scares me because of what I believe to be important limits placed on local government. His attack of Bill Bell assumes a role that will provide the office even greater control in the management of city government. The mayor will be elevated above that of the City Manager, and will, in many ways, assume the position and authority of the City Manager.

It is easy to blame the mayor for crime problems, issues with EPA, yard waste and a police department investigation when there’s the presupposition that the Mayor is directly accountable for all of these. If the management of city government is a marriage between the council, city manager and department heads, then an evaluation of all activity involves a critical examination in how all have impacted outcomes. If however our view of management places all outcomes in the hand of the Mayor, we have, as a consequence of that claim, altered the way we understand the infrastructure implored to manage local government.

I’m not quite ready to make those assumptions. I do appreciate a more active Mayor, but I’m not prepared to give the Mayor authority that changes the way are city is managed. That scares me.

That’s why Bill Bell gets my vote.

1 comment:

  1. Carl - I agree with your commitment to building bridges, and your appropriate concern with the concentration of executive power.

    Presumably that concern extends to our federal government as well, and I was wondering if you'd consider commenting on the American Freedom Agenda Act of 2007.

    Text of legislation:

    More information: