NC official denies race, gender played role in naming person to Durham board

10December 2021

— In August, the Durham Soil and Water Conservation Board unanimously nominated Phoebe Gooding, a local organic farmer with a master’s degree in environmental studies, to serve on the board.

The local board, a diverse group of elected and appointed members, helps manage runoff and environmental impacts like water quality and distributes farm grants promoting best practices.

Gooding’s nomination was then sent to the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission for final approval, which happens almost all the time. Instead, with virtually no explanation, the commission rejected the local decision to appoint a Black woman and instead chose Kenyon Browning, an older, white male farmer.

“I’m unaware of this ever happening. I’m pretty sure it’s unprecedented,” state Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham, who previously served as an elected supervisor of the Soil and Water Conservation Board, said of the state-level decision.

“[I’m] just very, very concerned about the precedent that it sets, I believe, in local governments,” Murdock added.

While concerned that the state commission passed over a Black woman for a white man, Murdock said the state overriding local authority is an even bigger issue.

“If they say Phoebe is the best fit for our local community, then I think that the state should listen to that,” she said. “It was a decision that was made unanimously.”

In a statement to WRAL Investigates, John Langdon, chairman of the state commission, said race and gender played no factor in filling the position on the Durham County board.

“My concern was the individual’s employment as Program and Organizing Director with Toxic Free NC, which I view as an organization that is in opposition to production agriculture,” Langdon said in the statement.

Gooding declined to comment, but Alexis Luckey, executive director of Toxic Free North Carolina, a group that opposes pesticides in farming, fired back, calling Langdon’s claims “baffling.”

“Protecting soil and water health is core to Toxic Free North Carolina’s mission and vision, and suggesting it is at odds with the function of the Soil & Water Conservation Commission raises significant questions about where the commission’s priorities lie,” Luckey said in a statement to WRAL.

Murdock said she wants state officials to answer her questions about why the local board’s decision was blocked.

“This isn’t something that we should sweep under the rug and simply say, ‘It is what it is.’ We don’t think that’s acceptable,” she said.

A petition to have Gooding appointed to the board has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

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