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Raleigh Civil Service commissioner reappointed despite absences

A frequently absent member of Raleigh’s Civil Service Commission was reappointed for another term Tuesday.

Cheryl Grissom was up for renewal on the board, which hears appeals of employee grievances such as firings. The board recently came under fire from a union group that points out that at every meeting but one, at least one commission member was absent.

Since the commission’s rules require support from at least four of seven commissioners to overturn a personnel decision, the union says poor attendance puts workers at a disadvantage. The union wants the city to reinstate fired sanitation worker Shirley Venable, who got support from a majority of commissioners at her hearing but still fell two votes short.

Before reappointing Grissom, Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin asked about her attendance record. City clerks described it as “good”; Grissom has missed only one hearing in the past two years, they said.

But minutes from the commission’s meetings show that Grissom missed three out of seven meetings since April 2011. Since 2007, Grissom missed six of 17 sessions, according to the minutes. She and commissioner Wilbert “Tramp” Dunn have been the most frequently absent members of the board, minutes show.

The Raleigh City Council plans to review the set-up of the commission in the coming months.

Hayes-Barton house could get historic status

A 1929 home in the Hayes-Barton neighborhood could be the latest addition to the Raleigh Historic Landmark registry.

The John E. Beaman House sits at the corner of White Oak Road and Beechridge Road, a few blocks east of Glenwood Avenue. Beaman was a commercial building contractor who built the Georgian Revival home for his family.

The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources will evaluate the house’s historical significance ahead of a public hearing set for May 7.

The city has 151 designated Raleigh Historic Landmarks.

Poll: Most Wake residents support Dorothea Dix park

An opinion poll released Tuesday found that Wake County residents support plans for a park on the Dorothea Dix property by a 2-to-1 margin.

Public Policy Polling surveyed about 600 voters last week in the wake of Republican-sponsored legislation that would revoke Raleigh's lease on the 325-acre state property. The bill passed the Senate last week and now heads to the House.

About 52 percent of those surveyed said they support the park, while 27 percent were against the idea.

Park supporters have argued that revoking the three-month-old lease signed by outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane will damage the state's credibility in future contracts.

About 50 percent of poll respondents agreed that the bill would "harm the state’s business reputation"; 38 percent say they don't think so.

The poll also found that the majority of Republicans surveyed didn't support the legislation.

Two park booster groups, Dix 306 and Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, held a meeting Tuesday at the Dix property to discuss the poll. About 50 people turned out in support.

"It was impressive the awareness of people that we might make this property a park," said Bill Padgett of Dix 306. "By 2-to-1 we ask the governor to veto that bill."

Raleigh City Councilman Russ Stephenson also attended the meeting, and he told the crowd he's hopeful that the House will debate the bill more thoroughly than the Senate. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll have more time in the House," he said.

Raleigh councilman battling cancer

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane announced Monday that Councilman Thomas Crowder will be absent from upcoming meetings as he battles testicular cancer.

The mayor read a prepared statement from Crowder, who says his prognosis is good and his doctors expect a full recovery. But a rigorous treatment will force him to miss many council meetings, including two this week.

"His commitment to the city and constituents remain the same," McFarlane said, adding that Crowder hopes to be back full-time by July.

Crowder has represented District D (Southwest Raleigh) since 2005. Our best wishes to him for a speedy recovery.

Raleigh council OKs Beltline streetscape project

Following the success of Hillsborough Street's recent overhaul, the Raleigh City Council voted April 1 to fund similar streetscape improvements on the Interstate 440 Beltline.

The $936.2 million project, set to begin construction in 2021, will narrow the six-lane freeway to one lane in each direction. The other lanes will be converted into tree-lined sidewalks and bike lanes while leaving room for buses on the shoulder.

"The Beltline has an outdated design that's increasingly at odds with our plans for a walkable, multi-modal urban core," Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.

Councilman Russ Stephenson said he's particularly excited about the new Beltline. "Imagine going to Crabtree Valley Mall, then taking a leisurely stroll across Glenwood Avenue and down the Beltline to eat at North Hills," he said, adding that residents could also enjoy sidewalk dining at the 73 new mixed-use apartment developments fronting I-440.

Those apartment complexes, which each have a mandatory rooftop community garden and backyard cottage, are encouraged under Raleigh's new development code.

The plan also takes aim at the Beltline's unattractive overpasses and exit ramps. Those will be demolished and replaced with five-lane roundabouts. "We think this innovative new design will be quite popular with drivers once they've read our 300-page handbook," transportation planning manager Eric Lamb said.

The ambitious project will likely be funded by a proposed 10 percent sales tax increase, but the council is also considering state-of-the-art tolling gantries, which would automatically deduct $20 from the driver's savings account. "They'll use open source software, putting Raleigh on the cutting edge of highway tolling," tweeted Councilman Bonner Gaylord.

More improvements are planned for the decades and centuries to come. Phase two of the plan calls for a light rail line through the Beltline's median and a Yonkers Road "destination park" on the current site of the Men's Club.

Raleigh's Fayetteville Street named "Great Main Street"

With a growing array of restaurants, bars and shops, downtown Raleigh's rebound has landed it a new accolade from a statewide group of city planners: Great Main Street.

The North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association gave the honor at its annual Great Places awards ceremony Wednesday.

"Fayetteville Street is a great public space where all of Raleigh and Wake County can come together, and we are proud to have been recognized by APA-NC,” Mayor Nancy McFarlane said at the event.

The award nomination points to the turnaround driven in part by the 2006 reopening of Fayetteville Street to traffic and the renovation of City Plaza: "The historic commercial spine of North Carolina’s capital city, Fayetteville Street has been transformed in less than 10 years from an emblem of urban decline to a dramatic symbol of urban success. By day, Fayetteville Street bustles with business, commerce and government activity. At night, it pulses with youthful energy fed by the restaurants, bars and nightclubs.”

Other "Great Main Streets" recognized were Fayetteville’s Hay Street, Davidson’s Main Street and Blowing Rock’s Main Street.

Raleigh City Council won't ban roosters

From staff writer Austin Baird:

Raleigh roosters are safe, at least for now.

The City Council's law and public safety committee decided Tuesday to uphold an ordinance that allows roosters inside city limits.

The council was considering a citywide rooster ban because of a recent uptick in noise complaints related to crowing.

Scott Voorhees argued that the problem is overblown. He owns a rooster and several hens, and a neighbor complained to the city about the noise. He says his rooster crows in the morning and a few times during the day, but rarely makes noise at night and never louder than a barking dog.

Julia Zavada also owns a rooster and several hens. She said roosters are indispensable for chicken owners because they protect against hawks, snakes and insects.

Zavada sound-proofed her coop and locks up the fowl each night, and she said most owners are responsible like her. "If you're responsible, there's no problem," she said.

The council agreed and made no change, though they said city workers will continue monitoring the issue to determine if a change is needed later. "We don't have anything against roosters," said Councilman Mary Ann Baldwin.

For Sunshine Week transparency, Raleigh rates high

It’s Sunshine Week, the annual observance where the media touts the importance of public records and transparency. Often that takes the form of stories highlighting situations where some entity is refusing to release records.

But here on the Raleigh city government beat, I don’t have much to complain about. In other communities, I’ve had to make multiple phone calls to get a simple town council meeting agenda. Raleigh has those available online for nearly every elected or appointed board you can think of.

The city has won awards for open government, and leaders are working on a new Open Raleigh platform to have more data online.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how forthcoming city officials here can be with records. Last week, I was trying to confirm a union group’s claim that Raleigh’s Civil Service Commission – the appointed board that hears employee appeals – almost never rules in favor of an employee.

I expected the board’s actions to be largely secretive – the blanket “it’s a confidential personnel matter” response often provided by government agencies. But after a quick call to the city clerk’s office, assistant deputy clerk Ralph Puccini had five years of meeting minutes in my email inbox within the hour.

That allowed our story to have solid facts, in turn allowing our readers to have an informed debate on whether or not the Civil Service Commission needs an overhaul.

Nash, Moore square trees coming down next week

Two of downtown Raleigh’s oldest trees will come down next week – one each in Moore Square and Nash Square. The move follows a tree assessment conducted last fall.

“While we are always reluctant to see the removal of large, vigorous trees, the data you collected and our visual inspection from the ground both identify the need to remove these two trees due to their impaired structural integrity in high traffic areas,” state forester Nancy Stairs wrote in a letter to the city this month.

At Moore Square, the survey found major decay in a willow oak at the southeast corner of the park. The Nash Square willow oak is at the south end of the square near Martin Street. It was damaged in a storm last summer. Both trees need to be chopped down since their condition is a safety hazard, the foresters found.

Raleigh council will review appeals process for fired city workers

A Raleigh City Council committee will review the appeals procedure for fired city employees after union members complained Tuesday that the process almost never results in an employee returning to work.

Members of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union remain upset about the 2011 firing of Raleigh sanitation worker Shirley Venable, who was accused of threatening her boss. Venable has denied making threats and said she was ridiculed on the job after becoming a victim of domestic violence.

Ashaki Binta, a union organizer, asked the council to give Venable her job back and investigate the city’s Civil Service Commission, which handled the appeal. Last November, the commission voted 3-2 in favor of Venable’s appeal, but a successful appeal requires four votes. Two of the seven board members were absent that day.

“What is the purpose of the Civil Service Commission if it’s just to rubber stamp every decision management has made?” Binta said, adding that it hasn’t reinstated anyone in years.

Council members said they won’t reopen the Venable case but will discuss the appeals process in an upcoming meeting of its law and public safety committee.

The N&O's Josh Shaffer wrote about the Venable case last year. Read his column here: