Hundreds of citizens from around Wake County packed a cavernous sixth-floor conference room in the state legislative office Monday afternoon to sound off on pending state bills that would have significant local impacts if passed into law.
Of these issues — which include fracking and an override on local zoning laws — the undoing of the Dorothea Dix lease and changes to the Wake County School Board drew the most ire at a meeting of the Wake County legislative delegation. Half of the more than 100 attendees signed up to speak were given the chance to comment during the two-hour session.
Senate Bill 325 – School Board Districts
There was no support for a bill that would redistrict current school board districts and alter the lengths of service for the board’s current members.
Kathy Boos, a parent and a Wake County resident, said she’s never missed an election in 36 years — not even a runoff.
“I take the election process and democracy in our country, state and county very seriously as I’m sure all of you do,” Boos said.
-Dorothea Dix park lease: Senate Bill 334, House Bill 319: Likely to be heard by full state Senate Tuesday.
-Wake County School Board Bills: Senate Bill 325 & Senate Bill 236: On hold pending Senate committee hearings.
-Zoning Regulations: House Bill 150: Passed House last week, to be heard by the Senate this week.
“I’m here to share with you my grave concern with Senate Bill 325 … We had a fair and open school board election and the people voted and they had their say. To throw out the results of that election and once again redraw new district lines and have a special election? It is costly; frankly, it is undemocratic. This is a Wake County School board issue, not a state government issue.”
A number of speakers touched upon similar points, including Patty Williams.
“They want to redraw school board districts again when state statutes say you can’t redraw without a new Census,” Williams said. “They want to cut short the terms of five members and extend the terms of four others and add two at-large seats.
“This is purely a political move — it’s not coming from the citizens but from overzealous, power-hungry elected officials who didn’t like the outcome of the 2011 school board election,” Williams said.
Senate Bill 334 – Dorothea Dix
A number of business and civic leaders, along with local residents, spoke against Senate Bill 334, which would undo the lease between the state and the city for the Dorothea Dix Property.
At one point during the meeting, a speaker asked everyone in the audience against Bill 334 to stand. Nearly all of the 300 or so in attendance rose to their feet.
When those who were in favor of the bill were asked to do the same, it was a small but dedicated group of fewer than 10.
Members of this group who spoke said they believed the deal with the city should never have gone through, because the land should be used specifically for the care of the mentally ill.
Hope Turlington, a mental health care advocate, argued that the replacement hospital located in Butner resulted in the loss of 500 beds and 1,300 jobs.
“Is it fair for our sick to wait six months in jail for a bed at Butner?” Turlington asked.
“I believe the bills are fair to all, so please vote. It’s the only thing that has acknowledged that we do have sick people in the state of North Carolina,” she said.
Gerry Ackland argued that when the deal for the lease took place, the public was largely left out of the discussion.
“When people were meeting in closed rooms and talking about places and building parks, guess who was left out? Those with mental illness. They were left out of the discussion; they were ignored,” he said.
Advocates for the park disagreed.
“The lease negotiated in 2012 was not a rush job,” said Joseph Huberman, who served on the Dorothea Dix Legislative Commission in 2003.
“I’ve been working to create a public-private partnership to develop Dix Park now for 10 years,” he said. “During these years I’ve been involved in four studies, and at each study there was a lot of public input and the net result was always that the public wanted the entire remaining tract to become a world-class destination park.”
Peyton Woodson has lived in Raleigh for 60 of his 90 years and is a staunch supporter of turning the Dix Property into a public park.
“We have among us a new generation of selfless leaders who have envisioned a great park for the state’s capital city — a park that will be an important amenity to be enjoyed by tens of thousands of visitors annually,” Woodson said.
“Dix Park is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform a public asset into a new amenity. Dix Park is not just for the benefit of the city of Raleigh but for the entire state of North Carolina,” he added.
Many argued that the bills under discussion are the result a partisan divide that would lead the General Assembly to interfere in matters best left to city and county governments.
Bryan Anderson, a self-described conservative who has lived in Raleigh for the past 15 years, was among those to express his dissatisfaction.
“I fear for the long-term health of our county and our state. This current legislative session is rapidly becoming a debacle,” said Anderson, a business leader and reserve Marine Corps Officer.
“Forcibly taking power from those at the local level and giving said power to the state; it reminds me of something that Hugo Chavez would do.
“Dorothea Dix: do you really wish to revoke a legally signed and binding contract simply because you don’t like it? Don’t overreach in this session,” Anderson implored.
Melonie Taylor, a retired school teacher, voiced a similar distaste for the legislature’s current actions.
“Change — it’s a long time coming, and I understand it’s necessary for the current majority to undo what was done by the previous lawmakers,” Taylor said, with sarcasm.
“Let’s take away local control of our municipalities and schools and put them in the hands of lawmakers … take away unemployment benefits, allow Senators [Louis] Pate and [Tommy] Tucker to use treatment of the mentally ill as a smokescreen to void a lawful contract for a park which benefits all the state. Above all, let’s do away with diversity and put up roadblocks to voting for the poor, the old, minorities.
“It’s time to resurrect the poll tax and the grandfather clause. Maybe we can return to 1719,” Taylor added.