Former Durham County Commissioner Fred Foster says he pretty much knew five years ago that Thursday’s vote to oust County Manager Wendell Davis was inevitable.
Foster and two other commissioners helped keep Davis in the position for five years by approving a contract that made it expensive for the incoming board majority to fire him without a clear reason.
“We felt like doing a long-term (contract) would make sure that the person would have a fair chance to show exactly what he could do and if he was capable of handling the job,” Foster said Friday.
But Davis’ protection ran out Thursday, as his contract expires at the end of June. The Durham County Board of Commissioners took swift action in 3-2 votes to not renew the contract and have Davis stop working for the county immediately.
Once again, the vote was split down racial lines. The board’s two Black members, Chair Brenda Howerton and Nimasheena Burns, called the votes retaliation for Davis’ accusing Commissioner Heidi Carter of racism. Carter, Wendy Jacobs and Nida Allam didn’t comment during the meeting on the votes.
A special meeting is set for 4 p.m. Monday when the board may appoint an interim county manager.
The five-year contract
Davis was hired in 2014 by a board composed of Foster, Howerton and Michael Page, who are Black, and Jacobs and Ellen Reckhow, who are white.
In June 2016, Foster, Howerton and Page voted in the 3-2 majority to give Davis the five-year contract. The vote happened after Foster and Page had lost in the March 2016 election but before the two new commissioners, Carter, a school board chair, and newcomer James Hill joined the following December.
The contract guaranteed Davis would be paid for any time within that five years if he was fired without cause.
On Friday, Davis supporters criticized the county for removing him during budget season and a pandemic. His detractors said it’s time to move on.
Howerton, who on Thursday called the vote not to renew his contract a “knee on the neck of a Black man,” said the decision was made with such haste that no one was put in charge, leaving the county vulnerable in case of an emergency.
County staff members have been reaching out to her, Howerton said, worried about their jobs and speaking up.
She also expressed concern about companies not coming to a county that says it supports racial equity but removes a manager who accused a commissioner of racism.
It may also affect potential manager candidates, she said. “Who is going to want to come into this mess?” she asked.
Antonio Jones, chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said the vote “was strictly about race and politics.”
The process wasn’t transparent, and county leaders didn’t appear to have a plan on how to proceed after it was done, he said.
“It is not what you do, it is how you do it,” he said.
Former longtime school board member Minnie Forte-Brown said Davis served Durham County well.
While some criticized Davis’ level of support of schools, Forte-Brown noted Durham County provides the most local money per student among the state’s 10 largest school systems. Plus, the commissioners ultimately decide how much money schools get, not the manager, she said.
Forte-Brown also said she didn’t have a problem with Davis holding the school board accountable for student performance and enrollment.
“That was a truth-telling moment. It wasn’t a slight or anything on our teachers,” she said. “It was just saying that: what are we using money for if we aren’t improving, we aren’t growing better, we aren’t having higher scores. I thought that was a decent assessment. I didn’t have an issue with that. ”
Forte-Brown described Davis’ removal as a retaliatory move that isn’t sitting well with many county residents.
“I just think it was a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.
Carter said Friday that state law limits what she can say about the decision making behind her vote.
“It’s a confidential personnel matter,” she said.
Commissioners were at a natural point in time to consider Davis’ contract, she said, and the decision was made by a majority of the board.
“I am grateful for manager Davis’ dedication and service to Durham County and for his contribution to Durham’s growth and success,” she said.
Asked why she voted to end Davis’ contact, Allam said she is looking forward to the coming budget process.
“I am personally very deeply committed to fully funding our Durham Public Schools, so students, families, teachers and all levels of staff have that level of support that matches the unbelievable commitment that they show kids in our community every single day,” she said.
Jacobs didn’t response to phone messages.
Millicent Rogers, co-president of the People’s Alliance, said the political group considers Thursday’s action “a good move.”
“We are honestly looking forward to organizations and residents of Durham coming together to bring about progressive policy changes quickly,” she said.
Such changes would support tax assistance, affordable housing and equal access to fully supported schools, she said. Rogers said she and others also want county employees to have all the support and resources they need.
Rogers said she is confident that residents and elected officials can bring stability to Durham County government.
“And it is now time to activate their capability and do that, and so that does mean having a true race equity conversation,” she said.
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