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Benton Starts Retirement with Court Appearance

BY J. Andrew Curliss
by J. Andrew Curliss on 1/6/01.

Former Raleigh City Manager Dempsey Benton probably had other plans for the first workday in 17 years that he didn't have to go to City Hall. But the powers-that-be wanted at least one more day of public service out of Benton, whose retirement started Sunday.

So Tuesday morning, Benton went downtown as usual, only this time to the Wake County Courthouse for jury duty. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said it was even more fitting because Benton was in the jury pool for a land condemnation case involving the N.C. Department of Transportation. The city often files similar actions against landowners.

Manning said the looks on the lawyers' faces were priceless when the clerk called out Benton's name to be questioned as a potential juror.

Jeffrey Gray, who represented the landowner, had a "very sick look on his face, then gulped and shook his head," Manning said. Meanwhile, the judge said he spotted a grin spread across the face of DOT lawyer Jason Campbell.

When Benton took the stand, Gray asked him whether he had ever participated in city decisions to condemn land. Yes, Benton said, but he could still be a fair and impartial juror.

Gray opted not to seat him on the jury. "I had some thoughts about keeping him. He said he could set it aside," he said. "But it wasn't worth the risk."

Benton, who plans to travel and sail his boat "Sealestial" during his golden years, was amused by his civic duty. "The timing was a little unusual," he allowed.

Indeed, he said he was excited about possibly hearing a condemnation case because he was always on the other side.

"It wasn't meant to be," he said.


Political Scorecard:

Those pesky laws: Some public officials relish the chance to hash out a battle behind closed doors, where residents can't get the full understanding of what's going on. Durham county commissioners MaryAnn Black and Becky Heron mused about such a desire Tuesday morning during a work session with the troubled Alcoholic Beverage Control board, which has been awash in political infighting. During a particularly sensitive exchange about allegations against board members, chairwoman Black offered this opinion: "I wish there were a way [my] board and your board could go into closed session to discuss this."

There isn't, and county attorney Chuck Kitchen said so. Black then turned to state Rep. George Miller, the ABC board's attorney and a knowledgeable supporter of the state's Open Meetings Law. And Miller tried to explain: Even if one board is discussing personnel matters - a legal exemption under the law - if both boards are in the same room, then the meeting becomes public.

His answer didn't satisfy everyone. Said Heron a few minutes
later: "I just want to find a way to make such a meeting legal."

Money's no object: Ambitious Wake County employees, take note: Should you desire training and should your boss say it costs too much, you have the go-ahead to leapfrog the hierarchy of supervisors and go straight to County Manager David Cooke. He'll make sure you get the skills-enhancing enrichment you crave.

It's important to Cooke that staffers keep their skills polished - so polished, in fact, that they could get a job somewhere else.


"Consider the alternative," Cooke said, "a whole work force that can't get a job anywhere else."

In a recent newsletter to county employees, Cooke wrote: "If your department does not have funds for your training, send the request to me and I'll find the funds."

So far, no one has taken him up on the offer.

An early candidates forum: Wednesday's session in Durham that brought together a "financial review committee" of 24 residents to examine the city budget also featured a good number of people who may be planning to run for office this year.

Joe Bowser, the county commissioner who is mulling a run for mayor in November, didn't show up, but Steve Hopkins, who is a declared candidate, did. The room also held Mayor Nick Tennyson and council member Pam Blyth, who is considering running for mayor, as well as council members Howard Clement, Dan Hill, Floyd McKissick Jr., Erick Larson, Thomas Stith and Jackie Wagstaff, Inter-Neighborhood Council president Mike Shiflett and past council candidate John Best Jr. All are potential office-seekers this fall.

As the residents group wrestled with tough questions about the budgeting process, the gathering of so many potential candidates didn't go unnoticed. "I think we'll have to change the name of this group to the Candidate Prevention Committee," Tennyson quipped. "I think we've weeded a few out here tonight."

Another suitor? Durham Police Chief Teresa Chambers' name popped up this week in connection with turmoil in the Providence, R.I., police force. But Chambers is not a candidate there - at least not yet.

The Rhode Island city's police chief has resigned amid scandal, and a national search is under way for a replacement who can turn the ship around. The Providence Journal interviewed Durham's chief and mayor this week about what it takes to lead a police department out of turmoil. Chambers' work in Durham is being looked at as a model to follow, especially because Providence and Durham are similar in size and status. The newspaper's story is scheduled to run sometime next week.

Last year, Chambers sought the top post with the Virginia State Police, then passed on an offer to become second-in-command.


Political Trail:

- Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the Common Sense Foundation, is to speak to the Wake Democratic Men's Club at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 3313 Wade Ave. in Raleigh. Dinner is $ 14 and reservations are required. To RSVP, call Mike Savitt at 781-5313 or send him e-mail at

- U.S. Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat., will present his monthly live call-in cable television show from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday on Triangle Cablevision. The show airs on channel 24 in Raleigh, channel 23 in Durham, Chapel Hill and Pittsboro and channel 60 in Cary and Garner.

- Chuck Fuller, director of N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy, is set to speak to the Wake County Republican Men's Club at noon Tuesday at Sam's Steakhouse, 3050 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh. Lunch is $ 10. For more information, call 785-3745 or log on to

- Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble, Cary Mayor Glen Lang, Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson, former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, former Raleigh City Manager Dempsey Benton and others are scheduled to speak to the Innovate 2001 conference Friday and Saturday at the Radisson Governors Inn, N.C. 54 and Interstate 40 in Research Triangle Park. The conference is sponsored by the John Locke Foundation, and more information is available at its Web site,