Mary-Ann Baldwin talks Lightner, Innovation, and Gangs

Mary-Ann Baldwin

Mary-Ann Baldwin

I got a chance to catch up with one of Raleigh’s At-large City Councilors, Mary-Ann Baldwin, for a five question email interview. If Mary-Ann can survive the Fire Department Operations 101 class, an orientation to the daily grind, risks, and rewards that Raleigh firefighters deal with daily, held on June 5, 2010, then certainly she can survive our questions. I’ve watched Mary-Ann on Raleigh City Council for the past few years and have become more and more impressed. She brings a much needed marketing and communications background and understands business principles such as communication, customer service, and team work. If you follow her on Twitter (she’s @maryannbaldwin by the way) then you know she’s interested in business innovation. See what Mary-Ann has to say about moving the Lightner Center forward, the gang situation in Raleigh (and how you might be wrong about it), how government can foster innovation, and much more in our interview with her.

1) City Council budget hearings are coming up this summer.  How is city council going to deal with the budget shortfall and what sacrifices will the City and citizens have to make?

Like many private citizens who are cutting back and living on tighter budgets, the City must do the same. This means that Capital Improvement Projects are going to be delayed, city services will be cut back, and the employee hiring freeze will continue. City employees will feel the pinch with smaller raises and increased costs for health care benefits. Although other communities are laying off workers, we’ve made a commitment to keep people employed to serve our citizens. And we continue to hire police officers.

Regarding the budget, we have an unofficial “rule”–if you want something funded that’s not in the proposed budget, you also have to suggest where to cut. In the past, I’ve worked to provide additional money for our police officers’ education fund, gang prevention, and the arts. This year, I’d like to see us maintain funding for the arts and human services, provide additional funding for economic development initiatives, and continue to work with the state to fund Tryon Road Part C.

While we’re not able to do everything we’d like to do during lean times, we are setting priorities. And we’re taking the opportunity to plan for the future–when times are better for everyone.  Studies on the Capital Boulevard and New Bern Avenue corridors, Union Station, transit, and the Unified Design Ordinance will all be important aspects of how Raleigh prepares for future growth.

2) Transit is another big topic. We are just seeing plans for Union Station, Raleigh’s proposed multi-modal station, coming out and being discussed. What are some of the realities that we can see for transit in the foreseeable future?

The reality is that light rail and improved bus service will never come to the Triangle unless we work hard to educate citizens on the benefits of transit and get voters to approve the ½-cent sales [tax], which is likely to be on the ballot in October or November of next year. The referendum campaign will be critical and I’m committed to being involved on a number of levels–educating, organizing, mobilizing, and fundraising–to make sure the public understands how important a quality multi-modal transit system is to our future.

We’ve seen other communities wage very successful campaigns to pass similar ballot questions–such as Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Denver. We need to learn from them and bring their best practices forward. And equally important, we need to think, work and operate as a region for this effort to be a true success. We haven’t done a very good job of this in the past. Polling shows that citizens are in support of a regional transit system. We have to keep that in mind every step of the way and move forward in a way that builds on that existing support.

The next year is not going to be real showy when it comes to transit. It’s going to be all about the planning and execution of a solid campaign to build support for a comprehensive program. These plans must maximize support in all areas of the city.

3) There are different viewpoints about the Lightner Center on City Council. What are your thoughts on moving the project forward and making it successful?

I think the Lightner Public Safety Center is necessary and vital to maintain the level of service our citizens expect and to give our public safety officials the tools and technology they need to get their jobs done. It’s important for our police and fire commanders and their teams to be housed together to improve communication and increase efficiency. And we desperately need a new home for our emergency services (9-1-1) center. We simply can’t meet the needs of a growing population in the current 9-1-1 center. Inaction will no doubt lead to degradation of service levels.

The recent debate on the Lightner Center has also been frustrating because years of planning have gone into this project. Many votes were cast over five years and $25 million in taxpayer money was spent on the building design and temporary relocation of police officers. I personally met with the architectural design team on three occasions to ask questions and vet the project early on.  I know all of my colleagues had the same opportunity, too.

Although I favor construction of the Lightner Center and co-locating all services under one roof, I’ve offered a compromise that I hope will allow us to move ahead on this important project. If we have to move the 9-1-1 center to a separate facility, then I can live with that. The big question going forward (to get majority approval) is how might we scale back the cost and scope of the project to avoid a property tax increase while still meeting the long-term needs of a growing city.  I guess we’ll know on June 15–when the design team comes back with its review and recommendations–whether a compromise is possible.  I remain very hopeful that a majority of the Council can reach agreement.

4) What is the reality of Raleigh’s gang problem and what can citizens do to take action and partner with Raleigh Police Department (RPD)?

I’ve talked to a lot of people in Raleigh who do not believe we have a gang problem.  Simply put, they’re wrong!  We’ve identified at least 50 gangs that operate in the City and more than 3,500 gang members. Gang activity caused a spike in the homicide rate two years ago, as well as an increase in armed robberies. I think our Police Department has done a great job adapting to this reality and vigorously policing gang activity, working with and within the community and also working with state and federal law enforcement officials to lock up violent offenders.

I want to see the City invest more resources in the area of gang prevention. Our police, parks and recreation, and community services departments have been working together and have had some major successes–a new boxing program, charm school, the hiring of retired police officers as mentors, and the Teen Center at St. Monica’s, to name a few. I’ve been working with Councilor James West on a broader initiative that is gaining momentum–the Collaborative Partnership for Excellence in Youth Development. We’re working with the John Rex Endowment and Wake County Human Services to bring together all the organizations that work with area youth–from the Board of Education to Wake County Gang Prevention. The idea is to leverage relationships, avoid duplication of efforts, and maximize the efficiency of existing agencies. We had over 60 people at our last meeting and there’s a great deal of excitement about the collaboration.

5) You Tweet a lot about business innovation. What are a few ideas that you would apply from the business innovation world to improve Raleigh’s government, be more innovative as a fast growing city, and increase citizen participation in government?

I think it’s challenging to interject innovation in government because government, by its very nature, tends to be risk-averse. You don’t want to take chances with public money and you don’t want to make mistakes. I’d like to see us be proactive communicators and to use our website more effectively to reach our citizens. Our site is being redesigned and developed, and that can’t happen soon enough!  It would be productive to have an interactive site where people can easily access information, report issues and get timely responses. I’d also like to see our television station, RTN, produce shows that communicate much more effectively what’s going on in Raleigh…shows about our diverse neighborhoods, the arts programs we fund, human service agencies that help our citizens. I think we need to look at ways we can enhance the tools currently at our disposal.

In addition, with all the great business and academic minds we have in our area, it would be interesting to convene a panel for a visioning exercise that looks at ways we can improve or innovate government service and encourage greater citizen engagement.

Thanks Councilor Baldwin for answering our questions.

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