Newcomers make pitch for Durham City Council appointment

Jan. 04, 2013 @ 07:35 PM

A couple of political newcomers could give City Council members a fallback option for filling the vacant Ward 3 seat, should they deadlock on the top two contenders.

Applicants Edward Kwon and Jason Melehani made it clear just by showing up for their interviews on Friday that they’re not backing away from a fight with established candidates Anita Daniels and Don Moffitt.

And while council members were plainly skeptical about how Melehani, a 24-year-old medical student, could find the time to serve, Kwon proved unstumpable during his 50-minute interview.

He detailed a record of low-profile volunteer service and appeared at ease when it came to linking the council’s concerns about land use, poverty and low-cost housing.

“Any new development should include some affordable housing,” Kwon said. “Affordable housing I think gives or creates equal living experiences for people. If there are jobs opening up in RTP or the south part of the city, but the only affordable housing is in central or east Durham, that does exclude huge portions of that population from even applying for those jobs.”

Meanwhile, Melehani said his dual-degree, eight-year program at the University of North Carolina offers him a window where he can devote about 30 hours a week to council business while filling out the remainder of former Councilman Mike Woodard’s term. It expires in December.

He voiced a preference for using lower taxes as opposed to the business-incentive packages the council has used to entice entrepreneurs to locate downtown and in the neighborhoods officials consider prospects for redevelopment.

Melehani also argued that officials should make more “non-degree-granting, skill training programs” available to the public as they try to lower inner-city unemployment.

All of the candidates answered questions without the benefit of hearing what their fellow contenders had to say. The council interviewed each of the four separately, and barred them from sitting in on one another’s session.

Kwon and Melehani are both from California and, as it happens, are both south Durham residents. Kwon has lived in the Huntington Ridge subdivision since 2005; Melehani bought a house in the Eagle’s Pointe neighborhood in 2011.

Of the two, Kwon more directly acknowledged his south Durham ties, noting that Huntington Ridge is next door to Chancellor’s Ridge, a hotbed of opposition to the controversial 751 South project.

He said officials in considering housing density “should keep to the limits” set by existing land-use policy, absent “real convincing arguments” for exceptions or policy changes.

Like Moffitt and Daniels, Kwon was skeptical about the claimed job-creation benefits of 751 South. “If it’s going to create jobs, I’d need someone to say more [about] who it’s going to create jobs for,” he said.

Kwon was equally conversant with issues like Durham’s anti-homelessness program. Answering a question from Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, he called it a “stop and start endeavor” that’s failed to capitalize on potential volunteer help from churches like his own.

But he cautioned against thinking charitable organizations can address poverty on their own. He singled out education and finding transportation to jobs as things officials have to address if they want to help the poor.

“Poverty is a destroyer,” he said in answer to a question from Councilman Howard Clement. “The city is only going to grow so much if we continue to have a large portion of our population living in poverty.”