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Burlington’s primary narrowed candidates, not their differences on issues

Voters in Burlington seem to have some stark choices before them as they prepare to cast their ballots in next month’s municipal election.

On Tuesday, November 2, the city’s residents will head to the polls to settle a lingering rivalry between Burlington’s incumbent mayor Ian Baltutis and councilman Jim Butler, who has passed up a chance for another term on the council in order to challenge the incumbent mayor for his seat.

In the meantime, voters will also parcel out a pair of regular seats on Burlington’s city council among a four-person field that includes incumbent councilman Harold Owen, political newcomer Dejuana Warren Bigelow, former county commissioner Bob Byrd, and the city’s former mayor Ronnie Wall.

In each of these races, the city’s votes will have no shortage of contrasts to help guide their selections between opposing office seekers. In fact, the two mayoral candidates and four city council contenders not only vary in their professional backgrounds and their previous political experience; they also profess some very different positions on issues that are high on the minds of Burlington’s voters.

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The distinctions among the six candidates were particularly clear in their responses to a questionnaire that The Alamance News distributed last month ahead of the city’s municipal primaries, which served to narrow the fields in each of the races that will appear on November’s ballot. Voters who took part in the primaries ultimately chose Baltutis and Butler over three other mayoral contenders to advance to the general election. They also jettisoned two of the six candidates who had filed to run for the two regular seats on the council that are up for consideration this year.

In its pre-primary questionnaire, The Alamance News asked the 11 candidates for mayor and city council to share their views on everything from taxation and fiscal policy to the council’s own structure and political hot buttons like vaccination mandates for public employees. The newspaper received back responses from every candidate with the notable exception of Bigelow.

The answers which the other office seekers provided reveal sharp differences on several issues, including the prospect of a vaccination requirement for Burlington’s municipal staff. The candidates also differ in their desire to increase police funding, their preference for city council elections based on districts or “wards,” and their support for a potential ordinance against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The responses that the newspaper received from the 10 primary candidates ultimately appeared in the edition that hit the stands on September 23. Rather than send out another list of questions ahead of the general election, The Alamance News is reprinting the submissions of the two mayoral finalists and the three remaining candidates for the city council who responded to its questionnaire. The answers that these five office seekers provided generally show the same degree of diversity as those of the 10 original respondents, and they underscore just how much is at stake in the decisions that the local electorate makes in November.


To vax or not to vax
One area where the contrast among the candidates is particularly evident is the vaccination of city employees against COVID-19. Although the city council has never publicly discussed either a vaccination mandate or any incentives for staff members to be inoculated, all five of the responding candidates have unambiguous views on these matters.

The possibility of a vaccination mandate, for instance, has found favor with Baltutis and Byrd, while Butler, Owen, and Wall are opposed to the idea. Byrd, a retired hospital administrator, says he would require employees to be vaccinated in keeping with his overall desire “to follow the recommendations of the CDC and mainstream scientists.” Owen, who served as Burlington city manager before his ascent to the council, objects to a potential mandate, adding that the city should provide its workforce with “the best medical information available to educate them on the health risks COVID presents.”

Owen also states his categorical opposition to incentives that might encourage staff members to be inoculated. On this point, the former city manager breaks ranks with most of the other candidates. Wall says he would back non-financial incentives such as “time off” from work – a proposal that’s echoed by Butler – while Byrd acknowledges that he’d favor incentives “only if necessary to get the desired result.” Meanwhile, Baltutis, who counts himself as generally opposed to incentives, would nevertheless contemplate “covering Covid medical costs for vaccinated employees as an incentive.”


LGBTQ protections
Another area of clear contrasts concerns a prospective ordinance that would prohibit discrimination in employment and public accommodation based on sexual orientation.

Several cities in North Carolina adopted such ordinances earlier this year on behalf of individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. A bid to introduce a similar ordinance in Burlington has the support of Baltutis and Byrd, while Butler, Owen, and Wall say they’d oppose such a move. Both Butler and Wall defer to the state in matters of discrimination, while Owen insists that the proposed protections “need to be passed at the federal and state levels” and “not local.”


Bigger, Better Burlington council?
The very structure of Burlington’s city council is also a source of division among the five candidates who answered the newspaper’s survey.

One possibility that has been bandied about by the council’s current membership is the apportionment of some, or all, of the council’s regular seats according to geographic districts, or “wards.” The use of a ward system in council elections meets with the support of Baltutis and Byrd, while Butler, Owen, and Wall are opposed to the potential change.

Butler and Wall also have no interest in increasing the overall size of the council from its current five-member lineup. Baltutis, meanwhile, sees room for growth on the council, as do Owen and Byrd, and all three offer a seven-member configuration as the ideal. Baltutis even contends that a seven-member council, with three seats allotted by wards, would be the most effective way to improve conditions for the city’s “marginalized residents.”

“Real representation and power to shape decisions within our city,” the incumbent mayor goes on to assert, “is the only way to drive full economic prosperity and representation where all residents can reach their full potential.


Race relations
The positions of the five responding candidates are a little more nuanced when it comes to the state of race relations in Burlington.

Butler, Byrd, and Wall explicitly say that this area is one where the city could stand to see some improvement.

“There are many areas of the city that need continuous improvement and race issues are no different,” Butler contends in his statement on the current state of affairs. “From policing to community outreach efforts, we are always working to create a united Burlington where racial matters are concerned.”

Owen also stresses the need for eternal vigilance in the realm of race relations. The former city manager asserts that the city council and staff “must continue to focus on creating an open dialogue throughout the city” in order to foster unity among people of different races and ethnicities.

Baltutis, meanwhile, is more keen to emphasize the achievements that he says the city has made since he became mayor in 2015.

“Burlington’s marginalized residents and neighborhoods have suffered neglect by previous city councils and managers, including some current city council members,” he adds in an apparent swipe against Butler and Wall, as well as Owen, who retired from the city manager’s post shortly before Baltutis won his first term as mayor. “The community development work of my past 3 terms has begun to repair and rebuild that damage.”


Matters of policy
The five office seekers who answered the newspaper’s questionnaire didn’t disagree on every issue that was put to them in the run up to the primary.

All of the responding candidates express their support for the city’s Link Transit bus system, which they uniformly deem a success. All five are also open to the use of “incentives” in order to attract and retain business and industry.

Each candidate is, likewise, inclined to work with the private sector to increase the city’s stock of affordable housing, and most offer public private partnerships as the single best way to address the dilemma. Yet, the unanimity doesn’t extend to the use of taxpayer funds to provide homes for the less affluent.

Butler and Wall both say they wouldn’t use the city’s own tax dollars to bankroll affordable housing. Owen, Baltutis, and Byrd are more receptive to the idea, although none of them would consider a property tax increase in order to house people of limited means.

Another area of disagreement among the candidates concerns the city’s financial commitment to law enforcement. When asked about the sufficiency of the police department’s budget, Butler, Owen, and Wall assert it should be increased, while Baltutis and Byrd believe that the police department is already adequately funded.


Gang violence
The five responding candidates also suggest different approaches to the depredations of the criminal street gangs that have ensconced themselves in the city.

Owen insists this dilemma cries out for better coordination among “federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities to identify gang members and obtain evidence to make arrests.”

Wall agrees that the problem demands more interagency cooperation and calls for a countywide task force “with all law enforcement in Alamance County participating.” Butler also doffs his cap to the Alamance County Gang Crimes Task Force and suggests that the city should continue to use its existing public outreach programs to combat gang-related activity.

In the meantime, Baltutis and Byrd offer a completely different outlook on the problem of street gangs. Both the city’s incumbent mayor and the former county commissioner see economic conditions as the basis for the presence of street gangs in the community.
“Meaningful employment opportunities with living wages for gang members can reduce their threats,” Byrd asserts on this point.

“Lack of opportunity and hopelessness for the youth of our city drive movement towards gangs,” Baltutis agrees. “Connecting them to opportunities solves this at the root cause.”


Monday quarterbacking the past
The one question that drew the widest variety of responses from the five candidates concerned their biggest areas of disagreement with the city council’s previous decisions.
Rather than divulge any particular gripe with current or past councils, Owen focused instead on how the various council members “have worked together” and relied on input from the pubic and staff “prior to taking action on items of business.”

For Wall, who retired from his previous position as mayor in 2015, the council’s most objectionable act has been to adopt a unified development ordinance since his departure – “without ongoing dialogue with the stakeholders.”

Byrd, for his part, faults the city council for not taking a more active role in the federal government’s sale of the former Western Electric Plant more than a decade ago. The one-time county commissioner insists that the council could’ve addressed the “environmental justice issues” posed by the site’s contamination, which was never fully addressed before the plant’s decommission.

Butler, meanwhile, has chosen an issue from his own tenure on the council to admonish in hindsight. The long-serving councilman and mayoral hopeful takes issue with the council’s “decision to support the Maple Avenue project” – a multimillion-dollar proposal to beautify and redesign a large stretch of this thoroughfare. “The city should shift its focus to North Church Street instead,” Butler goes on to argue in retrospect.

But perhaps the harshest indictment of the past comes from the city’s incumbent mayor, who scolds the rest of the council for its alleged “desire to move at a bureaucratically slow pace.”

“Economic trends have given us the opportunity to make crucial investments in our city that will drive prosperity if we are brave and decisive enough to act,” Baltutis goes on to contend. “Jim Butler and Harold Owen are not brave enough.”

Each candidate’s answers to the newspaper’s questionnaire are reprinted in full beginning on page 11. Candidate biographies, as supplied by the office seekers themselves, appear on page 10.

See full questionnaire and candidates’ responses HERE

See biographical information on Burlington mayoral and city council candidates:

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