Raleigh council members vote to limit their own political involvement

Raleigh residents and employees may soon hear a lot less from City Council members.

The Raleigh City Council voted 7-1 this week to adopt a code of conduct, limiting council members’ contact with city staff and advisory boards where residents are expected to work independently. The goal is to preserve the integrity of Raleigh’s advisory groups by protecting them from the influence of city politicians.

“Trying to inject ourselves into the process too early is a dangerous thing to do,” Councilman Dickie Thompson said. “If we appoint these folks, let’s let them do their job. And then if we don’t like it when we get it, then we can vote whatever way we want to go.”

Councilman David Cox opposed the code, saying he thinks it unfairly and unnecessarily hampers councilors’ ability to inform the public about important issues. Councilman Russ Stephenson voted for it, but also raised concerns that his peers could potentially use the rules as “a weapon” to potentially embarrass each other.

The ethics policy discourages council members from attending meetings of city staff and boards unless invited or revealing their opinions about upcoming votes until after the council holds a hearing. It also prohibits them from airing their political opinions at city events.

The city has few legal mechanisms to enforce council members’ behavior. But, under serious circumstances or after repeated violations, the council could vote to censure one of its members.

This week’s 13-minute conversation about the new policy during a meeting Tuesday was tame compared with the debate members had during their retreat earlier this month, where the conversations sometimes became heated.

Council members are most divided over stipulations that they shouldn’t influence residents, whether they’re considering a new project proposed for their neighborhood or tasked with reporting back to council about an issue like downtown parking or tree preservation. Raleigh has more than 20 boards and commissions, tackling issues such as plumbing, the arts, historic cemeteries and substance abuse, made up of residents who help the city craft policies for specific issues.

Cox thinks council members should be able to publicly state their opinion on proposed developments anytime, since developers attempt to curry favor with neighbors until the council votes on their proposal.

“You’re confusing governing and politics,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane told Cox during the retreat.

Stephenson suggested the code would do little to curb existing habits, and used rezoning requests to make his point.

Developers are sometimes interested in properties that aren’t zoned for the type of project they want to build. Raleigh’s Planning Commission, which has residents appointed by the council, studies those development requests and makes a recommendation to the council, which has final say over whether the development is approved.

“The truth is that applicants and citizens talk to councilors before they get to planning commission all the time,” Stephenson said. “To suggest the conversations that councilors have before with developers and adjacent neighbors have no bearing on the way the cases are presented by those parties to the planning commission is just not realistic.”

McFarlane said Tuesday’s move wasn’t a reaction to actions of any particular council member but the culmination of something councilors have talked about for a couple years.

“It wasn’t that anything had gone wrong,” McFarlane said. “It was that we didn’t have anything in place to use for when something did go wrong.”

Council members’ involvement in resident groups has drawn concern from at least one city task force leader. The code leaves room for council members to attend meetings of task forces, which are different from boards and commissions because they dissolve after producing a report for the council.

Cox and Stephenson have attended meetings of the Citizen Engagement Task Force, which the council launched to consider ideas for involving more residents in city government. After receiving emails from Cox and Stephenson on Feb. 19, task force member Damon Circosta emailed back to say their suggestions bog down the brainstorming process.

“We appreciate y’all empowering us and giving us ample staff resources to do our work. … But I did not think that y’all put this task force together in order to direct its work,” Circosta wrote.

“If I am under a mistaken assumption about the scope of our charge and how you would like us to proceed, We indeed welcome a course correction,” he continued. “But I don’t think it’s the most productive use of our time to have individual city counselors directing staff to tell us what we should or should not consider in our deliberations.”

Councilman Bonner Gaylord tried to wrap up the conversation during Tuesday’s meeting, saying council members who worry about losing influence should take comfort in knowing that all city issues that go before Citizen Advisory Councils, task forces and the Planning Commission ultimately end up before the council for approval.

“We have a seat at the table, which is where we’re sitting right now,” Gaylord said.