Black community questions motives behind some Durham commissioners rejection of minority-owned firm proposal

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Durham County Commission Board is 'fractured' and 'dysfunctional.'

An independent investigator determined this last year when allegations surfaced of racism and sabotage between Durham County Manager Wendell Davis and Commissioner Heidi Carter.

This year, the board committed to hiring a consulting firm for race and equity training based on the report.

"When you read the report it is pretty damming," said Robert Bobb, a consultant who owns The Robert Bobb Group in Washington, D.C. The Black owned firm presented a $50,000 proposal, offering race and equity training services during the commission board's Mar. 8 public meeting. The proposal was at the request of the county attorney.

During the meeting, some members of the board were eager to work with the company.

"There is a sea of employees that feel abused," said Commissioner Nimasheena Burns. "That is why we are doing this training." Others cited community concerns and felt the process was too rushed.

"I think a couple of options are a reasonable request," said Commissioner Heidi Carter.

The board voted 4-1 to reject the proposal.

"I'm disappointed in my board that there's so many objections," said Board Chair Brenda Howerton.

The board asked the county attorney Lowell Siler to find two more firms.

"We can sit here and go around and around about this," said Siler. "Bottomline is you all asked me to do this. You all asked me to find someone to give you all help."

Bobb said he was surprised by the exchange during the meeting.

"It's ok if you re-bid but tell us before the meeting that it's not acceptable or you want to go in a different direction," said Bobb.

"Let's pull this item off of the agenda. Let's set it aside and come up with a different process. That's what boards do," Bobb went on to say, "I don't think we were given a fair chance."

Durham County leadership is 'dysfunctional,' according to report that cleared 2 leaders of racism, sabotage

Today, the Durham Committee on the affairs of Black People are calling the public exchange in front of the consultant inappropriate. The group is demanding Commissioner Carter recuse herself from Durham County Manager Wendell Davis' upcoming contract negotiations. They also want Commissioner Carter, Jacobs, and Allam to apologize to the consulting firm for allegedly trying to block the proposal.

Antonio Jones, president of The Durham Committee for the Affairs of Black People, also tells ABC11 they question if their disapproval was racially motivated.

"We just don't see that type of energy used against non-minority contractors who look to do business with the county," said Jones. "So one has to wonder What's the problem? What's the issue? Is it race, is it personal, is it political?"

Today Commissioners Nida Allam, Heidi Carter and Wendy Jacobs released statements.

Commissioner Nida Allam statement:

Before responding, I watched our March 8th meeting recording to review any statements I made. I saw I did not make any comment in regards to Mr. Bobb or his team. And the question I raised to our County Attorney was to clarify the proposal process for the service Mr. Bobb and his team sought to provide. As a Commissioner, one of my duties is to ask questions on behalf of all Durham residents and provide transparency around Durham County government processes.

I agree that Mr. Bobb was put at a disadvantage due to his bid being made public. There are questions about how and why the bid was placed on the public agenda. The contract was put on our agenda at the last minute. And when I reached out to both the Chair and Attorney to ask questions in advance of the meeting, I was told Mr. Bobb would be at the meeting, and questions could be asked then. This situation could've been handled with more transparency within our board and between our staff. I can only speak for what information I have been given and what comments or questions I have raised. I am committed to establishing and following norms and processes to build an effective government that is transparent and generates trust amongst all community members; that is why I believe the long-standing Durham County Commission process of receiving multiple competitive bids for contracts over $40k should have been followed.

Thank you again for reaching out. I hope to continue keeping open lines of communication and building a trusting relationship with all community members and groups.

Commissioner Heidi Carter's statement:

Please find my response to the DCABP's 3 requests in their March 22, 2021 letter.

1. The DCABP sent a letter asking that I recuse myself from any discussion pertaining to the manager's contract. It is important to note that there are specific circumstances under which a county commissioner can either recuse oneself or ask to be excused from voting that are governed by NC General Statutes. In other words, I am required by statute to vote unless one of the general statute standards allowing recusal is met.

As is the case with all BOCC members, I can be excused from voting ONLY on matters

a. Involving the consideration of my own official conduct or financial interest

b. On which a member is prohibited from voting under the following statutes

i. Directly benefiting under a public contract GS14-234

ii. Zoning matters GS153A-340g; 160A-381(d)

iii. Quasi-judicial decisions GS 153A-345.1; GS160A-388(e2)

In this case regarding matters related to the manager's contract, none of the standards laid out in the statutes above are met. Therefore, it is my duty to vote. According to statute, my duty to vote is actually a requirement. Furthermore, in a council-manager form of government, the hiring of the county manager to implement the progressive policies of our board, is perhaps our most important decision. I was just re-elected by the people of Durham to participate in this decision. I will not recuse myself from this obligation.

2. Regarding request #2, please review the tape of the March 5 meeting (approximately 2hour 50 minutes). I had no part in "a derogatory campaign against this consultant agency". This item of approving a contract with the Bob group was added to the agenda very late, on the day of the meeting, and no other options were presented to us. This is not in accordance with our County procurement policies. Nonetheless, I expressed appreciation to our attorney for his work to help us find a consultant, and I thanked the Robert Bobb Group for joining us. I stated that I was (and am) adamantly committed to training, to working with the board to be a better team, to manage constructive dissent, to develop rules of engagement, and other aspects of board functionality; and I made the motion that our attorney bring us back 2 additional options to be considered along with the Robert Bobb Group. This motion passed 4 to 1. I thanked the Robert Bobb Group representatives for being with us and expressed dismay that the discussion may have felt uncomfortable. While I hear the concerns of the DCABP in their letter, I do not agree that these actions or statements on my part were derogatory or disrespectful. I am sorry if anyone interpreted them that way. Board members must be able to ask questions of all staff, always respecting their dignity and expertise, without these questions being thought of as a sign of disrespect. We are fulfilling our obligation to make informed decisions on behalf of our community and constituents.

3. The third request is that we "refrain from utilizing obstructionist tactics to further prevent this board from receiving training by qualified third party." I agree that we must participate in training and that this is a priority. I am committed to working together with my four commission colleagues to become a high-functioning board that has robust and respectful discussions about all aspects of the challenging policy issues we face. I believe that we are more united in our values and goals for our community than we are divided and that the only pathway where we can find our way back to one another will be through trust. I am committed to working together with kindness, respect, tolerance, and all other principles of civic engagement.

Vice-Chair Commissioner Wendy Jacobs statement:

I appreciate hearing the concerns from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. As an elected representative of the people of Durham, I take these concerns and the concerns of all members and organizations of our community seriously. The manner and process in how this contract was brought forward for board consideration was problematic in many ways and it is unfortunate how this process negatively impacted this potential consultant. This contract was added to our agenda at the last minute and on the day of our meeting. Previously, myself and other board members had also requested when this item is brought to our board, that we have at least three options to consider which is consistent with the practice related to contracts over $40,000 and past board decision making regarding the use of outside consultants to assist our board. it is important that in the future we strive to have full transparency, good communication and we follow best practices and our adopted rules, procedures and processes for the positive functioning of Durham County Government and the Durham County Board of Commissioners. I am fully committed to pursing board training in all areas, including racial equity and following best practices as I strive to serve the people of our community. As elected officials we must ensure all board members are involved in the decision making process related to consultants our board engages with for their expertise and that we are able to make informed decisions about the use of public funds.
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