For the first time my husband and I went to the PAC 5 Coffee with Council, held in the 2nd Floor Committee Room at Durham City Hall on March 12, 2015. We were unprepared in a number of ways.
The near-carnival atmosphere that greeted us when we entered made us pause and look around…were we in the right place? Food for all, a packed house, a celebratory atmosphere. Why? I'm not sure I ever figured it out. But there were important lessons to be learned.
The Mayor and all Durham city council members minus one were in attendance, as were the City Manager and a dozen or more city staff, many of whom were department heads. The event opened with a brief rundown on the City's overall FY15-16 budget and then the floor was open.
Michelle Irvine gave a crisp summary of the questions/input PAC5 submitted in advance. Alice Cheek gave an impassioned plea for funding for Edgemont Park. Frank White made a nice presentation of our new website (the Mayor joined our listserv on the spot) and took photos. But then we flopped.
Aside from Michelle, Ms. Cheek, and Frank, PAC5 members were very few in attendance and we did not have our act together. The best prepared members of the public were representatives of the trails and open space community. They came equipped with polished statements and clear requests. PAC 5 did not push downtown open space. Someone made a plea for more funds for public art. Lisa Miller (city planner and Seven Stars bike shop collective) made a strong pitch for better coordination between downtown event planners and downtown businesses so that events didn't de facto shut down business. My husband made points about floating a bond to pay for the top 10 capital improvement projects identified as priorities and the need to find ways to keep downtown a place for everyone (not just those who can afford to pay). I fumbled around, asking a few detailed questions based on the response from staff to our official questions. But it seemed that because staff had given written responses, the council members only felt it was important to respond to the verbal presentations made that night.
We made two tactical errors. First, for each of the five questions we submitted there should have been a PAC5 member briefly present the issue and make a simple request (taking a page out of the seasoned trail advocates playbook). Council should have staggered out of the room ready to fund any trash-related demand we had because we have the evidence and the staff concurs with both our assessment of the problem and our ideas for solving it. We really blew this opportunity to push for better trash management downtown.
PAC5 should have come prepared to enter into a dialogue with the City Council. I have been to many council work sessions and council meetings over the past 18 months and never has there been such an opportunity to engage in an open-ended way with Council, the Mayor, City Manager, or other staff. They were relaxed and responsive. A lesson I won't soon forget.
Don't get me wrong. The evening was really interesting and educational - sort of a cross between a beauty contest and a debate. But we need to challenge ourselves to do better next year. The PAC5, even though it has been around for a number of years, has been changing to reflect that the downtown part of the district now has residents in addition to businesses. With the formation of a new downtown neighborhood network, in 2016 we should be prepared to bring forward a robust list of issues for the Council to consider over coffee.
Submitted by Marcia McNally, downtown resident
March 21, 2015