By Kofi Kufuor
When I first arrived Durham in 2013, new acquaintances and friends born and raised in the Bull City, gave me the impression that Durham was changing for the better. “Used to be, like five years ago, you couldn’t walk downtown,” my neighbor Earl, a Durham native and lifelong resident, once told me. It was strange to consider that a town this vibrant and alive, could have been anything else. Regardless, I felt like I was in the right place for the next chapter of my life.
There was a sense of direction and optimism that Durham exuded, a quality which I had not experienced in the handful of towns—both north and south—that I lived in before moving to North Carolina. I am originally from Ghana, and only moved to the U.S in 2008. First, a month in Brooklyn, then five more in little Rutland, Massachusetts, before settling in Newberry, South Carolina. Like mama bear’s porridge, for me Durham was just right.
Four years later, almost to the day, I found myself at a rally downtown Durham, after finding out from a classmate who’s also a Durham native, Robbie Breitweiser, that the Ku Klux Klan and the Sons of the Confederacy had planned to march that day at noon. This was supposedly in response to the recent removal of the confederate monument in front of the old courthouse on main street.
People of all races descended on Main Street. There were signs and chants protesting the Klan, white supremacy, Trump’s rhetoric, as well as its effect on race-relations. The scene seemed familiar, but didn’t seem to fit the present day. I was surprised to see a majority Caucasian crowd, protesting racism in North Carolina. One lady in her late twenties held a placard reading, “my face says privilege but my heart says equality.” Others denounced the Klan and Nazis. I couldn’t believe I was in the American South at a time like this. In my mind, I was witnessing a southern renaissance, and I was stoked to be a part of the process.
That night after the rally, a group of friends and I gathered on a porch and discussed what had happened. It was inevitable that a discussion about who the next mayor would be arose. We discussed some candidates, like Schewel and Freelon, and pondered over how they might fit the office. How should our next mayor deal with social strife of this kind?
Some Basics about Durham City Government
Durham’s City Council has seven members. Three seats are elected from specific wards (certain geographic parts of town), three are elected at-large (from the whole city), and one seat is held by the mayor, who is elected at-large by Durham voters.
The Mayor and Council are each elected in nonpartisan elections. Meaning, there are no Democratic or Republican candidates—just individuals with ideas. The individual members are elected to four year terms. The elections are staggered. Every two years, three members are elected. Two years later, three more members and the mayor are elected. The upcoming election will see the election of three ‘ward’ seats and the mayor.
City Council meets on the first and third Monday of every month in Council Chambers, located in City Hall. More information about Council can be found here.
Six Durhamites are running for mayor: Farad Ali, Tracy Drinker, Pierce Freelon, Shea Ramirez, Steve Schewel, and Sylvester Williams.
It’s easy to think of a mayor as an executive figure—someone who holds a position similar to a local governor. But in reality, mayors are more akin to a congressional leader or a Speaker of the House-like figure. This is because a city council is, at its governmental core, purely legislative. The mayor is a component and member of this lawmaking body. However, the role that a mayor plays, both on council and in the town or city at large, varies depending on the local structure of government. And it’s important to consider these variations when considering the candidates vying for the mayoral office.
Most cities in the United States operate under one of two arrangements of local government: the Mayor-Council structure or the Council-Manager structure. The difference between the two may seem semantic and even insignificant at first. But the details reveal a vast difference in the resulting powers allotted to the mayor.
In a Mayor-Council government, an elected mayor plays a significant administrative role. Though their position remains technically legislative, both in form and function, in many ways they act as a quasi-executive figure. Such mayors are charged with implementing local policy and sculpting the annual budget. These tasks are separate and apart from the general council, which meets to approve mayoral requests, in addition to creating local law. Independence is the most important feature of this form of government. Mayors in this arrangement are politically independent from their fellow council members. Roughly one-third of towns and cities in the U.S. operate under the mayor-council form of government. Of these, most are major metropolitan cities, such as New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago, among others.
The second structure of local government, the Council-Manager arrangement, is the form most common in the United States. This is also the form by which Durham and most North Carolina towns and cities operate under. “In North Carolina, most, if not every town operates under a Council-Manager form of government,” says Lydia Lavelle, mayor of Carrboro and professor of law at NCCU School of Law. This is due in part to the egalitarian operation of the Council-Manager form.
Durham adopted the Council-Manager structure more than eighty years ago, during an early-century era of municipal reform. The argument at the time was that citizens of a municipal government would be better served by a non-political executive office. The intended consequence was administrative competence and efficiency, aimed at the root of expanding American socio-political engagement.
The benefits and effects of the Council-Manager structure are numerous. The mayor and council are political figures elected by the voting populace to create laws. Council is tasked with considering, passing and amending local ordinances at their monthly or, in Durham’s case, bimonthly meetings. Here however, the mayor does not possess the administrative authority to manage the city. Instead, the council collectively appoints a City Manager who see to the day-to-day operations of the city—hence the name Council-Manager. Additionally, the manager works for the whole board, not just the mayor.
In other words, the city is “run” by a council-appointed professional administrator, who carries out administrative operations free of any political ties or responsibilities. The effect is a two-fold system of: (1) political representation that echoes and gives power to the collective voice of the community that the council serves; and (2) a neutral administrator that carries out the community’s functions.
The Extent of Power
The mayor is an integral part of the city council—a political and substantive equal to their fellow council members. The mayor votes as an equal. If they vote, that is. “There are many towns in NC where the mayor doesn’t vote, like Hillsborough,” Lavelle says, adding that there are others “where the mayor may only vote in the case of a tie.”
Under Section 9 of the Durham Code of Ordinances, the mayor presides over all meetings of the city council and votes on all questions presented to and considered by the council. In Durham, the mayor’s vote is equal to his or her fellow council members. The office has no additional vote in the case of a tie. The mayor is also recognized as the official head of the city. This consideration extends to ceremonies and events. Included within this designation is the power to administer oaths, take affidavits and call special meetings with any four members of council and the manager present. Mayor Bell will be remembered for his omnipresence at such functions.
The mayor also has the power to appoint officers and members of boards and commissions, unless the council elects to do otherwise. Durham has a handful of such boards and commissions, including, among others, the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission, Historic Preservation Commission, and the Board of Adjustment. Other boards and commissions may be created to address a specific issue in the city.
Voting power aside, one of the most important functions of the mayor in a Council-Manager system is to facilitate meetings, motions, public inquiries, and legislation.
“A major role of the mayor is agenda management, and particularly agenda management on the spot,” Lavelle says. Mayors help to guide their fellow council members toward a vote or a consensus, and introduce topics and conversations to the council at large. Often, she notes, this is done through one-on-one meetings with the mayor, the results of which are presented to Council. In this way, the mayor acts as an approachable figurehead for the city, to whom residents may bring their ideas, proposals and the like.
It is here that we find the intersection of the mayor and the identity of the city they represent.
The mayor of Durham is and should be an individual who embodies the diverse social, political, and cultural spirit of our city. In picking the right candidate, it is paramount that we each understand and consider what this individual is asked to do once in office. We must also examine our own conception of what Durham is and can be.
My neighbor, Earl, spoke of Durham undergoing a renaissance. From my perspective, this rebirthing process is still young, yet has potential for rapid growth. Durham has a lot to teach the south and America as a whole. This growth is clothed in our diversity in culture and tradition. Durham provides a diversity—of people, of culture, of opportunity—unrivaled for a small southern city of its kind. Only one question remains: who is best equipped to fuel this momentum?
Kyle Sherard contributed writing to this article.