‘A knee on the neck’: Durham County ousts manager in racially divided 3-2 vote

·6 min read

The Durham County commissioners terminated County Manager Wendell Davis’ employment Thursday in a 3-2 vote the board’s two Black members called racist.

“Sitting before me I see a rope, a knot and a tree,” said Commissioner Nimasheena Burns. “I have nothing more to say.”

“What I am left with is a knee on the neck,” said Chair Brenda Howerton. “A knee in the neck of a Black man.”

The board vote came after a roughly 45-minute closed session. Former Chair Wendy Jacobs made the motion to not renew the manager’s contract. Commissioner Heidi Carter seconded the motion.

Jacobs, Carter, and Nida Allam voted in favor of terminating the contract. Burns and Howerton were opposed.

Howerton said the motion was one of the most racially motivated that she has witnessed in her 12 years of service.

She said that decision follows Davis accusing Heidi Carter of racism toward him and staff in February 2020.

“Why the rush?” Howerton asked, noting the board hasn’t considered his performance evaluation, addressed issues of racial bias by county employees, or the dysfunction that a consultant recently pointed out.

“We must first put in the work of examining ourselves and then make a decision from a healthy place,” she said before the vote. “I am employing that we work together in unity for a fair and just resolution.”

As manager, Davis, whose salary is $226,001, has overseen the county’s 2,000 employees and a more than half a billion dollar budget.

Thursday’s vote follows months of community debate in which the city’s influential political groups lined up for and against the manager.

After Davis accused Carter of racism last year, a county consultant said tension between the commissioners and manager — and among the commissioners themselves — had put Durham County government in “a state of periodic dysfunction.”

The tension continued this spring with The People’s Alliance asking city and county leaders to appoint managers whose professional management matched elected officials’ progressive philosophy. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People sent the county a letter asking that Carter recuse herself from any discussion about Davis’ contract, which ends June 30.

Since Davis was hired and his five-year contract approved, most members of the board have rotated off except for Howerton and Jacobs.

Durham County Manager Wendell Davis was appointed top administrator in 2014.
Durham County Manager Wendell Davis was appointed top administrator in 2014.

2016 contract vote

The five-member county board has previously voted along racial lines on issues such as hiring and firing county managers and controversial developments.

Davis, who was deputy county manager from 1999-2011, was hired in 2014 by a board that included Fred Foster, Howerton and Michael Page, who are Black, along with Jacobs and Ellen Reckhow, who are white. Jacobs cast the one dissenting vote against hiring Davis.

In June 2016, Foster, Howerton and Page voted in the 3-2 majority to give Davis a five-year contract that protected him from a changing board.

The contract stipulated Davis would be paid for any time within that five years if he was fired without cause. If terminated without cause after that time, he would get one year of his salary and many other benefits.

Foster and Page remained in their seats until two new commissioners, Carter, a school board chair who ran as an advocate for public schools, and political newcomer James Hill were sworn in the following December.

After the vote on the contract, Lavonia Allison, former chairwoman of the Durham Committee who spoke at the meeting, described Jacobs and Reckhow’s votes against the contract as “racial.”

Allison linked the issue to Davis’ pushing the Durham Public Schools for greater accountability, especially on student achievement. The roughly 31,000 student population is majority Black and Hispanic.

Davis when weighing school board budget requests, has noted DPS has one of the highest per-pupil spending rates among the state’s larger school systems but the poorest scores on third- and fifth-grade proficiency tests.

Michael Page, Durham County commissioner
Michael Page, Durham County commissioner

2020 election

Three years later, in February 2020, as Carter faced a field of 14 others vying for five commissioner seats, Davis sent her a letter accusing her of disparate treatment of him and his staff.

The letter followed a discussion on funding for school buildings and other improvements, in which Carter indicated Davis was holding up the funding.

“For some, but not so obvious reasons, you have taken several opportunities to make disparaging remarks about me,” Davis’ letter said. “I am now concerned that it is due to an inherent bias that you harbor not merely towards me, but people of color in general.”

The letter cited examples, including Carter telling an African American woman with a doctorate “you are so articulate,” Davis wrote.

Initially Carter called the claims in the letter baseless, but she apologized at the end of October.

“Looking back, I recognize that my defensive reaction perpetuated a familiar defensive response by a white person, especially in the midst of ongoing anti-Black violence in this country,” she said.

The apology followed an investigation by a consultant, Duke University Professor James E. Coleman Jr., who found no racist intent in Carter’s criticism and that some staff perceived Jacobs as micromanaging.

Given the “often-fractured relationship” among the board, manager and staff, Coleman stated, the manager and his staff “reasonably could have perceived” Carter’s criticism at the February 2020 meeting as racially biased, at least implicitly so.

Coleman said the tension had put Durham County government in “a state of periodic dysfunction.

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New board in December

In December, a new board comprising incumbents Carter, Howerton, Jacobs and newcomers Nida Allam and Burns was sworn in.

In February, the commissioners agreed to racial equity training and other steps.

In March, the People’s Alliance released a letter questioning Davis’ contract.

Millicent Rogers, co-president of the People’s Alliance, told The News & Observer that it is a time for change in Durham. The new Board of County Commissioners, likely the first all-woman county board in North Carolina, should not be bound to the kind of contract Davis had been given by a previous board.

Next, members of the Durham Committee and the Friends of Durham said Carter should recuse herself in discussions about Davis’ contract and the commissioners should set aside the discussion altogether until they address the dysfunction outlined in the consultant’s report.

“It is our fundamental belief that no employee should be subjected to a toxic work environment,” said Antonio Jones, chair of the Durham Committee. “Furthermore, it is time to stop disrespecting, scapegoating and gas-lighting Black county employees for political appeasement.”

Last month leaders from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Durham, Durham Clergy United, and the city’s Racial Equity Task Force joined Durham Committee and Friends of Durham leaders in a news conference outside county offices downtown.

“We are watching Durham get progressively ill,” said Elaine O’Neal, former chair of the Racial Equity Task Force. “We see this as a perpetuation of a culture of anti-Blackness.”