Sunday, December 10, 2023

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Burlington mayoral and city council candidates: where do they stand?

Next month’s general election will present voters in Burlington with a broad spectrum of choices as they mete out the position of mayor as well as the two regular council seats that are available this year.

Whether gauged by political experience, their personal backgrounds, or their stances on policy questions, the two mayoral contenders and four council hopefuls who will appear on the ballot are as motley a cast as any the city has seen in recent memory.

In the case of the mayor’s race, the city’s voters will select between Burlington’s incumbent mayor Jim Butler and first-time challenger Beth Kennett.

In the meantime, their options for the city council will include incumbent councilman Bob Ward, the city’s former mayor pro tem Celo Faucette, planning board member Charlie Beasley, and Dejuana Bigelow, a member of the city’s police advisory board who dominated the field last Tuesday when the city held a municipal primary to set the slate for the council race in November.

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In order to help voters distinguish among these various candidates, The Alamance News has sent each of the contenders a questionnaire along with a request for some basic biographical information. The first part of the newspaper’s questionnaire, which went out to all candidates, consisted of general inquires on issues ranging from tax policy and police protection to economic development.

Non-incumbents also received a supplemental questionnaire that asked them to weigh in on some of the council’s more noteworthy decisions from the past couple of years. Their speculative votes were then compared to the actual decisions made by the incumbents.

The candidates for the city’s two regular council positions were originally sent their issues questionnaires ahead of the municipal primary on October 10. The four current contenders were joined, at the time, by four other office seekers, who were ultimately cut from the field during the primary. All eight of these would-be council members ultimately responded to the newspaper’s survey, and their responses appeared in The Alamance News two weeks ago.

Since then, the newspaper has sent the same set of questionnaires to Butler and Kennett – although only Kennett received the roster of hypothetical votes reserved for non-incumbents. The responses of the incumbent mayor and the challenger appear in this week’s edition along with each candidate’s bio. Also reprinted this week are the previous submissions of the four council candidates who survived the primary.

The complete responses of each mayoral candidate to the newspaper’s questionnaire begin on page 12.[See questionnaire HERE.]

Also included are the answers that these same questions elicited from the four current city council contenders ahead of the primary. The supplemental questionnaire along with each non-incumbent’s responses is on page 14.[Find it HERE.]

Biographical information for the mayoral and city council candidates can be found on page 11. [See story here: https://alamancenews.com/meet-the-candidates-for-burlington-mayor-and-city-council-2/]

 

Incumbent advantage

The distinctions between competing candidates are especially glaring in case of the mayor’s race, where the advantage of incumbency seems to have given Butler a noticeable edge in the depth and detail of his responses to many of the newspaper’s questions.

Originally elected to the city council in 2007, Butler served off and on among the council’s rank and file until 2021 when he waged a successful bid for the city’s top office. His positions are, perhaps unsurprisingly, larded with insights about the city’s programs and services, and he evinces an insider’s intimacy with legal and procedural complexities that few lay people can match.

More often than not, Butler also betrays an incumbent’s natural proclivity for the status quo. When asked about property taxes, for instance, he defers to the city’s current property tax rate of 48.36 cents for every $100 of property value. He also argues against an expansion of the city council’s membership, the introduction of a ward system, or a move to replace the council’s currently non-partisan elections with overtly partisan votes.

The city’s incumbent mayor goes on to defend the non-partisan character that he has sought to instill in the council’s proceedings since he took up the gavel two years ago.

“We should not engage in partisan political issues,” he declares. “To create unity, we must seek a non-partisan approach to municipal issues. We are elected to govern with political neutrality and rely on collaboration and cooperation.”

Kennett, meanwhile, insists that someone serving as mayor should prioritize “what is best for the city” over partisan politics. She nevertheless voices her support for partisan elections for city council and mayor. Kennett also acknowledges her support for a resolution in support of a ban on the use of nuclear weapons – a stance that the city council declined to take up two years ago because its current membership deemed it outside the purview of municipal government.

 

Next question…

This anti-nuke resolution is the only one of a dozen past council decisions that Kennett deigns to address in response to the newspaper’s supplemental questionnaire. The first-time candidate begs off on the other 11 questions, insisting that she simply isn’t in a position to Monday morning quarterback the council’s decision on these matters.

“I cannot know how I would have voted in these situations because I was not a part of the council and engaged in all of the conversations dealing with these votes,” she adds in her explanation to the newspaper for skipping over these questions.

Kennett also gives wide berth to some of the questions in the newspaper’s first questionnaire. She declines to opine on the tax rate, for instance, and objects that the identification of budgetary items which should be increased or cut “cannot adequately be answered with [a] yes or no.” She is, likewise, mum on whether to increase, decrease, or maintain the current level of funding for Burlington’s police force.

Kennett also refuses to be boxed into a corner on a downtown streetscaping plan that was recently shared with the council and on a variety of recreation projects that have come up for discussion.

“How do these changes impact the health and sustainability of the city and the city’s infrastructure?” she goes in to inquire generically of these endeavors.

Kennett is a bit bolder, however, in dealing with issues that require no deep understanding of municipal finances or program particulars.

The mayoral challenger slates her support, for example, for a municipal ban on discrimination based on sexual preference or gender identity. Butler, for his part, insists such a ban is unnecessary because discrimination is already addressed under the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act.

 

Down to brass tacks

Kennett generally acknowledges her support for public transportation, affordable housing, and other programs that would benefit Burlington’s less affluent residents. These initiatives also garner words of support from the city’s incumbent mayor.

Even so, Butler often goes beyond a simple rhetorical commitment and shares additional details and insights about the city’s existing efforts. In the case of affordable housing, he plugs the benefits of public private partnerships, such as an ongoing venture between the city and GoodHomes Communities to transform the Maple Hotel into a collection of studio apartments. Butler also offers a more nuanced assessment of Burlington’s Link Transit bus system, which he helped to establish as a rank-and-file member of the city council.

“Link Transit is one of the few systems regionally with a growth in ridership,” he goes on to profess. “The need [for public transportation] is critical in some sectors…and nearly all the expenses are covered by federal and state monies.”

Both Kennett and Butler support the use of taxpayer funds to attract business and industry. Kennett stipulates that these outlays should “boost the economy in the city.” Butler, likewise, contends that incentives should be used to stimulate growth in wages, employment, and tax revenues, adding that enticements based on increased tax proceeds are preferable

Both Kennett and Butler are forthcoming about the current state of race relations in Burlington.

“We have significant challenges with race relations in the city of Burlington,” Kennett contends. “Communities continue to be segregated, and there must be intention in building bridges and having conversations about race.”

“There are many areas of the city that need continuous improvement, and racial issues are no different,” Butler acknowledges. “From policing to community outreach, we are always working to create a united Burlington where racial matters are concerned.

Neither candidate strays into perilous territory when assessing the city’s police force. Butler commends the strides which the police department has made in reversing a staffing crisis that depleted its ranks a few years ago. Meanwhile, Kennett mentions the department’s attempts to foster cooperation between police officers and the residents they’re sworn to protect.

“I believe the Burlington police department has worked to be a more positive presence in the city,” Kennett asserts. “There continues to be a need for improvement, [and] as a community, we must…work with the BPD to increase safety.”

The goal of community engagement also colors Kennett’s biggest dispute with the city council’s recent decisions.

“The very short council meetings,” she argues, “could have better engaged the community or [be] conducted in a way that better honors the time of the staff, council, and community.”

Butler, meanwhile, is hard pressed to find any reason at all to grouse about the city council’s decisions under his leadership.

“Most of the actions I disagreed with have been addressed over the last two years,” he confessed. “While not perfect, we are operating well, and our city is thriving.”

 

Divergent views in the council race

The ideological spread in the mayor’s race seems to increase as one moves down the ballot to the candidates for the council’s regular seats.

The range of opinion among these four office seekers is especially wide when it comes to the city’s property tax rate, which is currently set at a level of 48.36 cents for every $100 of property value. This rate, which is roughly 21.3 percent more than the city needed to offset the gains from the county’s latest property tax revaluation, is explicitly endorsed by Ward, who also supported the municipal budget which enshrined this new rate. Bigelow also deems this level “about right,” while Beasley and Faucette insist that the council should pare back this rate. Faucette suggests a alternative figure of 45 cents, while Beasley opts for 41.42 cents – a rate near the “revenue neutral,” or break even, levy that the county’s tax office had calculated for Burlington.

The four candidates are equally divergent in their views on specific items that have, or are expected to, come before the council for funding. In one series of queries, the newspaper sought each office seeker’s position on various recreation projects that the council has recently mulled. The only project on this list that passed muster will all four contenders is an indoor recreation center in west Burlington. The idea of a skate park appealed to everyone but Faucette, while Ward stood alone in his support for a $3.2 million pickleball complex.

Bigelow ultimately takes a jab at this seven-figure pickleball venue in response to a separate question about juvenile crime, which she believes could be ameliorated through more investment in community centers.

“Let’s invest in those facilities first,” she adds. “A $3.225 million investment in pickleball courts isn’t a bad idea but it’s not or life-or-death investment.”

 

Taking sides

The candidates are also of vastly different minds when they’re asked to consider the composition and character of the council.

The question, for instance, of whether to reorganize the council into a geographically-based ward system resonates with Bigelow, while Beasley and Faucette oppose the idea, and incumbent Bob Ward would leave the issue up to the voters.

A potential expansion of the council’s membership also gets mixed reviews – with Bigelow and Ward suggesting two extra seats; Faucette in favor of one; and Beasley satisfied with the current complement of five members.

Another area of disagreement is the extent to which individual council members should intervene in partisan politics. For Bigelow, an overtly partisan council would actually be preferable to the current nonpartisan arrangement. Nor does she see anything wrong with independent partisan action by members of an ostensibly nonpartisan body.

“Political parties provide important organizational value to our American Democracy,” Bigelow contends on this point. “At their best, they seek to ensure good collaborative conversation and representation for marginalized voters.”

Faucette is firmly committed to the council’s neutrality on partisan issues, while the other two candidates express a preference for nonpartisan elections but are open to varying degrees to partisan involvement by individual members.

“As long as decisions are made with the best interests of Burlington in mind, party affiliation should not matter outside the position,” declares Beasley.

“I certainly support individuals exercising their First Amendment rights,” Ward asserts, before adding that “issues before the council should…not be determined and/or resolved based only on partisan principles/philosophy.”

 

Race relations

The state of race relations in the city of Burlington is also a fertile field for disagreement among the four council candidates.

Bigelow and Faucette, who are both black, find much to be desired in the city’s current rapport with its non-white constituents. Faucette, for one, sees some need for improvement in the city’s hiring policy as well as the police department’s interactions with residents in particular neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Bigelow is critical of the city’s top-ranking leaders for their apparent failures with people of color and others who feel left out of the system.

“Burlington’s marginalized residents and neighborhoods have suffered overwhelming neglect by Burlington city council members for decades,” she adds. “City charter changes expanding the council to seven members and creating three wards will improve the representation of our marginalized residents.”

The two white candidates in this race are more optimistic about the city’s efforts to reach out to racial and ethnic minorities.

“Based on my perspective from everyday interactions, I believe racial relations are generally good,” Ward says in response to one of the newspaper’s questions.

“Most of the racial issues I see are brought here from outside sources,” Beasley asserts, “and in spite of those efforts, we have made great strides to unify the city.”

 

Affordable housing

The promotion of affordable housing is one item that ranks high on just about everyone’s list of priorities.

Ward offers perhaps the most particulars in response to the newspaper’s questions about housing. The incumbent councilman proposes to draw on the city’s annual installment of federal community development funds, cooperate with the Burlington Housing Authority “to explore approaches to providing housing,” rework the city’s development rules to encourage innovations like “tiny homes,” and “explore incentives such as waivers of inspection fees and water/sewer taps.”

Beasley recommends policies like low property taxes and better-defined rules for boarding houses to “assist private owners in maintaining affordable rent levels,” whereas Faucette suggests working with landlords “to use sweat equity for remodeling homes that are vacant.”

Of all the candidates, Bigelow is easily the most critical of the city’s current approach to affordable housing.

“Our current council has remained silent on the housing crisis in Burlington,” she decries. “Although it’s complicated, addressing the issue should be at the top of the agenda.”

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