Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Burlington voters in Tuesday primary to narrow city council choices from 8 to 4 for November ballot

Burlington voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to whittle down the number of city council candidates who will be on the November 7 ballot.

Burlington is the only local municipality that has a primary for any municipal races.  When more than two people per available position file to run for an office, a primary is held in October to narrow the number down to two per position.  So the voters’ assignment on Tuesday will be to pick the top four of eight available candidates who will be on the November ballot, from whom two will ultimately be elected to the city council.

The high number of candidates is probably attributable to the decision of long-time council member Kathy Hykes not to seek re-election.

Hykes’ extended tenure on Burlington’s city council originally began more than four decades ago when, at the age of 33, she was appointed to a vacancy in the council’s membership.

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Hykes went on to win her position outright in the fall of 1981, although she lost her next bid for re-election in 1985 after a particularly turbulent race that turned her off of municipal politics for nearly three decades.

Hykes nevertheless returned to fray in 2014, when she applied for another vacancy that opened up on the council when former council member David Huffman resigned to become Burlington’s new city attorney. She went on to win one of two council seats that were up for grabs in 2015 – the other going to incumbent councilman Bob Ward, who had himself served as Burlington’s city attorney before his elevation to the council in 2011.

A total of five female candidates and two males are among the non-incumbents who have filed for the two seats.  Ward is seeking re-election to a fourth, four-year term.

The candidates include: planning board member Charlie Beasley; unsuccessful 2021 candidate Dejuana Bigelow; former councilman Celo Faucette; Mary Jensen; Cindy Lackey; Brandy Whittaker; and Robin S. Wintringham.

The municipal race is non-partisan, but the newspaper verified the current partisan registration of the eight candidates.  Most are Democrats:  Bigelow, Jensen, Ward, Whittaker, and Wintringham.  Beasley and Lackey are registered as Republicans, and Celo Faucette, who was formerly a Republican, is now registered as unaffiliated.

The Alamance News submitted an issues questionnaire to all of the candidates, and a second, shorter questionnaire to the seven non-incumbents, asking for their positions on 12 issues that the council has faced in the past two years.  The newspaper did not identify to the candidates that in each of the 12 instances, the council’s votes had been unanimous, 5-0 votes, or unanimous by consensus but without a formal vote.

Biographical sketches of the candidates begin on page 4.  [See information here:]

A comprehensive issues questionnaire begins on page 5.  [Online version reprinted HERE.]

A questionnaire for the non-incumbents is on page 8 [Online version reprinted HERE.]; incumbent councilman Bob Ward’s positions are included from his comments and votes on the council on the 12 issues covered in the survey, although the survey itself was not given to him.

It is clear from the candidates’ responses  that none of them agreed with all of the council’s actions over the past two years.


Property taxes and budget

Of particular note is the candidates’ varied responses on whether they would have supported the budget adopted earlier this year that included a significant property tax increase above the “revenue neutral” rate as calculated by the county’s tax administrator.

The diversity of the eight candidates is readily apparent in their responses to the newspaper’s questions about municipal finances.

The range of opinion 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, Whittaker, and Wintringham also deem this level “about right,” although Whittaker concedes she’d have voted against the budget itself when she completed this newspaper’s supplemental questionnaire, which asked all non-incumbents to armchair quarterback some of the council’s recent decisions.

Beasley, Faucette, and Lackey insist that the council should pare back this rate. Faucette suggests a alternative figure of 45 cents, while Beasley opts for 41.42 cents, and Lackey undercuts the rest with a proposed rate of 35 cents.

The only candidate who finds the current tax rate too low is Mary Jensen, whose counteroffer is a rate of 63 cents.


Line item spending

The eight 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. None of these projects received universal support from the candidates, although the idea of a skate park appealed to all but Wintringham and Faucette. An indoor recreation center in West Burlington failed to pass muster with Jensen, Lackey, and Wintringham, who was nevertheless alone in her support for a seven-figure “dome” over the tennis courts at Burlington’s City Park. Wintringham also backed the development of a $3.2 million pickleball complex, as did Whittaker and Ward, while no one expressed any interest in the idea of a specialized beach volleyball court.

The candidates are in lockstep, however, when they’re asked about compensation for city staff members.      In their responses to the supplemental questionnaire, all of the challengers who responded sided with the council’s decision in 2022 to extend a 6 percent raise to the city’s entire workforce as well as its resolution later that year to give each sworn police officer nearly $9,000 extra a year.


Council size, ward representation, partisanship

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

The question, for instance, of whether to reorganize the council into a geographically-based ward system gets traction with Bigelow, Jensen, Whittaker, and Wintringham. Beasley, Faucette, and Lackey oppose the idea, while 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, Ward, Whittaker and Wintringham suggesting two extra seats; Faucette in favor of one; and the remainder 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 Lackey and Bigelow, an overtly partisan council would actually be preferable to the current nonpartisan arrangement – and they, likewise, see nothing 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 and Jensen are firmly committed to the council’s neutrality on partisan issues. Other 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.

“Whether or not I get involved in partisan issues depends on the issue,” Winteringham notes.

“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.”

Affordable housing

The positions of the eight candidates are especially diverse when it comes to specific policy issues that are frequently on the council’s agenda. The promotion of affordable housing is nevertheless one item that ranks high on just about everyone’s list of priorities.

As for the means to achieve a more fairly-priced housing stock, the suggestions are as numerous and varied as the candidates themselves.

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.”

Wintringham, who in a past life was in charge of Alamance County’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, points to potential opportunities through outlets like the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency.  In the meantime, Whittaker suggests that the city leverage “basic supply and demand principles,” Jensen proposes to “legalize more apartment units and support community land trusts,” while Beasley recommends policies like low property taxes and better-defined rules for boarding houses to “assist private owners in maintaining affordable rent levels.” Lackey opines that the city ought to “recycle” vacant buildings to add to the inventory of affordable homes, and Faucette, likewise, 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.”


Economic development

In the arena of economic development, only Cindy Lackey is flat-out opposed to the use of corporate subsidies as an “incentive.”

The other seven candidates all support some form of taxpayer-funded incentives to recruit new industries and cultivate those already in town. Beasley is insistent, however, that any assistance from the city should be “extremely limited in scope.”

“The taxpayer is not an angel investor,” he asserts.

Bigelow and Whittaker back a broad range of grants and pump-priming initiatives – particularly for startups and small business. Ward embraces public spending on infrastructure and site preparation in addition to simple cash grants, while Faucette stresses the need for a return on the city’s investment in the form of more jobs or additional tax revenue.

Meanwhile, Jensen espouses “tax credits” for small businesses and those “that address a community need” such as “grocery stores in food-scare areas,” while Wintringham endorses incentives “that create housing in the 50% to 80% income range” in addition to those that inject jobs into the workforce.


Link Transit

Most of the field counts itself satisfied with Burlington’s Link Transit bus system, although Jensen finds the stops too dispersed and the service too thin in the city’s southeastern reaches.

The eight candidates nevertheless differ on how to pay for the bus system – with Jensen, Lackey, Wintringham taking issue with the council’s recent restoration of fares – a move Ward supported when it came up for consideration. Lackey, for one, is inclined to make deep cuts in “nonessential spending such as a pickleball court” to free up more funds for mass transit.


Race relations

Another fertile field for disagreement is the state of race relations in the city of Burlington.

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 plight of Burlington’s “marginalized communities” is also apparent to Whittaker, who is white; while Jensen, a fellow Caucasian rates the state of the city’s race relations as “very poor” due to “redlining” and the inequitable distribution of resources.

Other white candidates 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.”

“As a Christian, I don’t see ‘race,’” Lackey contends. “I believe we have ‘pockets’ within the city of very frustrated, hopeless people, breeding anger and ‘acting out.’”


Law enforcement

For some candidates, the issue of race relations spills over into their suggestions for the city’s police department. Others are quite complimentary of the police force even if they find fault with the city’s overall efforts to make inroads with people of color.

Whittaker, for instance, contends that the police department “has consistently held higher rates of solved violent crimes than the national average” and she commends the department for the “strides” it has made in building relationship under its “last two police chiefs.” Meanwhile, Bigelow lauds former police chief Jeff Smythe for his “commitment to make all residents of Burlington a priority.”

Bigelow nevertheless sees a need for the city to do more to address juvenile crime, and she suggests that the council ought to divert more resources to community centers in neighborhoods with higher crime rates.

“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.”

Other suggestions for crime fighting include Faucette’s call for surveillance systems that can detect gunshots, Beasley’s emphasis on “proper staffing and training” as well as “joint task force operations,” and Lackey’s proposal to “educate gang members about other moral lifestyles.”

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