The 2015 municipal primary early voting is open! Here are the endorsements!

I, um, meant to have this out a while ago, but life kind of caught up with me. You’ve got until Saturday to early vote – go get to it, you guys!

Quick background: Durham’s elections are heavily influenced by three local PACs. The most liberal PAC is The Durham People’s Alliance. The Durham Committee is the African American PAC. The most moderate PAC is the Friends of Durham, which tends to place a slightly greater emphasis on business development.

I include Indy Week in the list below because the publication is omnipresent, and it’s one of the few media outlets that even bothers with local politics. The PACs all do community outreach, but casual observers or newcomers are far more likely to grab the Indy while waiting for a latte than they are to seek out the endorsements of local activists.

durham.io Indy Week Durham People’s Alliance Durham Committee Friends of Durham
Mayor Bill Bell Bill Bell Bill Bell Bill Bell Bill Bell
At Large Council  Steve Schewel Steve Schewel Steve Schewel Steve Schewel Steve Schewel
At Large Council  Philip Azar Jillian Johnson Jillian Johnson Ricky Hart Ricky Hart
At Large Council Charlie Reece Charlie Reece Charlie Reece Mike Shiflett Mike Shiflett

Yes, this year I have my own endorsement list! Here’s why I chose these people:

  • Mayor Bell. I chose Bell because, as usual, he doesn’t have any real competition. I have some problems with Bell’s debbie downer attitude towards bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, but he’s the mayor we’re going to have (I mean, he’s even pre-announced that he’ll retire after serving the term he’s still running for).
  • Steve Schewel. He’s got a proven track record, and he has been quick to respond to concerns. He wrote a really good response following the Huerta incident, and he was supportive of seeking a compromise in the Club Blvd redesign. He lists sidewalks and bike lanes as priorities on his web site.
  • Charlie Reece. He wants to reduce enforcement of pot offences. Well… he used to anyway (it looks like he updated his site to remove any pot-specific language, but he still talks about reduced enforcement for minor offences generally). Minus points for no mention of bicycle infrastructure. Plus a lot of points for his adorable, color matched family. In case it disappears forever from the Internet, here’s what Reece’s site used to say about weed:

The Durham Police Department spends far too much time, energy, resources and money charging people with low-level marijuana offenses. These criminal charges clog our courts, they disproportionately impact young people of color in Durham, and they do very little to make Durham safer. If I am elected, I will work to make misdemeanor marijuana offenses the police department’s lowest level enforcement priority, and to refocus more resources on making the people of Durham safer from violent crime.

  • Philip Azar. He’s got an emphasis on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and he’s been active in neighborhood groups.

This year, everybody is talking about affordable housing and the police. Understandable concerns. But not everybody is talking about transportation, and they need to be. Affordable housing is useless if you can’t actually get to where you need to go from it. With the huge influx of new housing there will be a lot of people who need to move around town, and we need to make it possible for them to do so more efficiently.

The State budget aims to block light rail

Here are some details from the N&O:

House and Senate Republican leaders agreed Monday that the state should not contribute more than $500,000 to any light-rail project.

That provision in the newly released state budget could be a lethal blow to the planned 17-mile Durham-Orange light rail line, projected to cost as much as $1.6 billion.

I don’t expect many are surprised by this, but it’s clearly not good news for people hoping to improve the transportation infrastructure in Durham and Chapel Hill.

Of course, light rail is a long way off, and I’ll be curious to see whether this will have any practical impact on the project in the near term. We were already looking at over a decade for the line to be finished, and there’s a lot of planning to be done before any construction even begins. A budget passed in 2015 may not hold much relevance in five or ten years, and it’s impossible to guess how the NC political landscape might shift in the interim.

DPD Chief Lopez is out

From the City’s web site, via an announcement written by city manager Bonfield:

After careful consideration, I have determined that a change in leadership is necessary at this time for the City of Durham and the Durham Police Department to continue to meet the law enforcement expectations and needs of the community. Yesterday, Police Chief Jose Lopez, Sr. and I reached an agreement for his separation from the City of Durham, resulting in his decision to retire effective December 31, 2015.

Oddly Lopez’s departure is being described as “retirement,” but the phrasing of the press release seems to imply that it wasn’t a voluntary retirement. Lopez issued a statement to the department, as well.

From my perspective, Lopez has had a really bad string of luck in a really tough job. The death of Jesus Huerta was a low point in his tenure, and the Department’s response to the aftermath was clearly problematic. Now, crime numbers are worsening; Lopez’s retirement even follows closely behind what appears to be a suicide by cop incident involving a pellet gun last week. It’s also notable that the timing of this announcement is mere weeks before the start of city council primaries…

I’m reluctant to pin the blame for much of the DPD’s issues on Lopez; there’s not a simple fix for crime, and Durham’s demographic breakdown has got to be more challenging than most cities of this size. Of course, the city needs to look like it’s addressing the crime issue, and one of the strongest statements one can issue to that effect is a change in management.

Ultimately, I don’t think Lopez has done an especially bad job, but I do think he was dealt a pretty bad hand. Hopefully whoever replaces him can make something better out of it.

Despite the spike in Durham’s violent crime rate, the ATT seems to be a safe haven

I’m not going to lie, this is looking like a really bad year for crime in Durham. The crime rate was up through July, and there were several really awful events in August too. Even Duke is being hit, and the university is doubling their police patrols around central campus.

Things are bad enough that DPD chief Lopez is making the rounds, trying to reach out to community members. It’s difficult to see what he can realistically do; faith in the po-po is especially low across the country right now, and there’s no clear evidence that the DPD is doing anything especially wrong.

There’s at least one positive crime story, though: it turns out, the American Tobacco Trail is pretty safe right now. This is according to a draft report from NC State, NC Central, and NC Rails-Trails.

Although the report notes the spike in crime a few years ago, it also observes that the trail is overall safer than many of the communities it passes through. I read this as: where the trail runs through some of the poorer areas of Durham, the safest place to be is on the trail.

The exception to this is the area around Fayetteville St near the intersection with Pilot Street, where several crimes have clustered on the trail. The study notes that “crime locations were correlated with areas with open views and lack of vegetation; urban areas where the trail/community edges are poorly defined” – that describes the area to a T. The report identifies ways to improve the built environment to help improve safety in this sort of location.

I’ve been critical of how the city has responded to crime on the trail in the past, but overall the trail appears to be quite safe at this time (although that shouldn’t be seen as a justification for ignoring the “low hanging fruit” improvements mentioned in the report). It appears that right now the biggest crime issue facing the trail is perception, rather than reality.

Hey guys, the students are back!

Despite the fact that it happens every single year, the return of the students always catches me off guard. NC Central classes started today, while Duke students are moving in this week with classes starting nex Monday the 24th.

The students are obviously huge for businesses around campus, but they also ramp up the wait times at restaurants and make everything just feel a bit more hectic around downtown. You might want to go ahead and make some reservations if you’re thinking of eating out this weekend.

Tonight is national night out

If you live in one of Durham’s neighborhoods, you might want to know that tonight is national night out. The annual event encourages cooperation between residents and police, and as usual Durham and the DPD are participating. So if you spot the popo on your block tonight, there’s probably nothing to be worried about.

Recently there has, of course, been some anti-police rhetoric in Durham (and, you know, a lot of places) but in my experience these events tend to be fairly positive. You can probably expect a council member or the mayor to swing by, in addition to DPD officers and Durham County Sheriff’s deputies.

One Durham man really does not like ghost bikes

The city has a policy about citizen placed memorials within the right of way: you can put them up, but if there’s a complaint – a single complaint – they’ll be forcibly removed 45 days thereafter.

One Durham man has decided to use this process to eliminate every ghost bike from Durham (ghost bikes are bicycles painted white placed at the sites where cyclists were killed in traffic; they serve both as memorials and as reminders that some roads can be especially dangerous for cyclists).

Here’s a conversation this man had with a city official:

Good morning [redacted],
People have been asking me about the removal of this
ghost bikes through out the City. Are we suppose to email you the
location, contact Durham one call, or have your staff been educated
about the ordinance and will remove the ghost bikes?
I have been inform of two locations that the bikes
have been located there for a long time.
 1. Hillandale Ave before crossing the over pass for 85
 2. Chapel Hill and W. Chapel Hill meets.
 Thanks
  [redacted]

These two locations mark the spots where Seth Vidal and Kent Winberry were killed, respectively.

I’m not going to name [redacted], but I think it’s important to highlight that any single person has the power to remove every right-of-way memorial in the city. I think that’s problematic, and so do the partners of the slain cyclists in question.

I don’t know if there’s an ideal fix for this policy. The irony is that (to my recollection) the policy was instated after the city’s removal of Jesus Huerta’s memorial, and it was intended to prevent the premature removal of such displays. I think the intent is sound, but the barrier for removal – one citizen’s email to the city – seems very low to me.

There appears to be an interesting loophole here: the person who placed the bikes can remove them before the time period expires. After that 45 days, they can place a different bike in the same spot, and it seems like this would be considered a new memorial. At that point [redacted] can make his complaint again, but there will be yet another another 45 days grace period within which the new memorial can survive.

EDIT: there’s now a petition at change.org calling for the city to reevaluate this policy.

The Eno Quarry claims another victim

The Quarry, located in the Eno River State Park, has had a history of drownings. Another young man lost his life there yesterday.

I’m posting this as a bit of a PSA: the Quarry is only for people who really know how to swim. It’s a good 15 minute walk from your car, there are no life guards, there’s basically nowhere here you can touch the bottom. Depending on how you enter, you might have to swim a good ways to even get a handhold to climb out.

The Quarry has become more popular than ever, and it’s kind of becoming the de-facto recommended swimming hole for newcomers, which I find a bit troubling because it is not for everybody. With its rise in popularity more incidents like this are likely to happen. I love the Quarry, but if you want to go, make sure you are prepared. Even if you are a strong swimmer, you might want to keep a flotation device ready just in case you have trouble.

If you aren’t absolutely certain of your swimming abilities, but want to take a dip, there are other options which are easier to handle.

Google Fiber continues to move forward, with free service planned for some low income housing

As the Google Fiber rollout continues throughout the Triangle, there’s something new to get excited about: Obama’s bringing free Internet to some low income residents in Durham. WUNC says that the Goog will be offering up its service gratis to some 2000 households (presumably funded by the Federal program).

Although that’s pretty great, it’s maybe not as big a deal as it seems at first blush: keep in mind that Google Fiber already has a free tier that anybody in their service area can take advantage of. The “gotcha” there is the $300 installation fee, which is presumably what’s being waived as part of the announced program.

In other fiber news, do you remember RST “Fiber,” the supposed competitor to Google Fiber which started making big claims last year? Well, Wake Forest has apparently gotten tired of waiting and kicked them to the curb.

Oh, and one final Internet note: if you’re on TWC, you might want to reboot your modem to see if you have better speeds. At the end of June they finally disabled all of their analogue and ClearQAM channels, but at the same time they apparently started rolling out free account upgrades too. If nothing else maybe it’ll make the wait for Google Fiber a little more bearable.