Monday, August 21, 2006

St. Thomas More forgotten in fray

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 19th, 2006:

This month two historic buildings are being torn down in Chapel Hill. One, West House on the UNC campus, has been the subject of loads of activism and media attention over the last few years. The other, the original St. Thomas More Church on Gimghoul Road, is being torn down with little attention from anyone other than the parties involved.

It's a shame that either of the buildings is meeting its demise. I've walked by each of them pretty much daily for the past four years and they each enhance their surroundings.

It is interesting, though, what the difference in the public outcry over the destruction of each building says about our community. Most of the people I've talked to who are familiar with both of these buildings agree that the church is more striking and attractive than West House.

Yet it is West House which has attracted the large coalition of talented locals to advocate for its survival, including Sen. Ellie Kinnaird and three members of the Chapel Hill Town Council. They first encouraged the preservation of the building in its current spot, and as the prospects of that dimmed, explored the possibility of relocating it.

On the other hand there has been virtually no outcry about the demise of the church, which anchors the Gimghoul neighborhood. It will be replaced with a residence for Vilcom owner Jim Heavner, who currently lives elsewhere in the neighborhood.

There is an obvious surface level reason for the disparity in activism. West House is in a prominent place on campus, so there are a lot more people who see it and could have developed an affection for it on a daily basis.

The main reason no one is speaking out about the church, though, is probably that the neighbors want it gone. The Gimghoul neighborhood association has complained for years about the church and its parking lot, and the prospect of a single home on the property is appealing to them.

I can understand the concern that a business would buy the church and become disruptive to the neighborhood, and I'm glad that's not happening. I'm less sympathetic to some of their behavior toward the church over the past few years.

St. Thomas More has long rented out the spots in its parking lot, both helping to raise money for its activities and providing a much needed parking source for students and staff close to campus. Several years ago the neighborhood association sued over this.

The church offered to compromise by chaining off the Gimghoul Road entrance to the parking lot other than on Sunday mornings, so that there would not be any additional traffic in the neighborhood. The homeowners association was not interested in making a deal, though.

The neighborhood leaders are supportive of the demolition of the church, at least in part because now they won't have to worry about parking there. I think it's unfortunate they were so eager to see a historic building torn down just to avoid a minimal amount of traffic.

The Gimghoul neighborhood is one of Chapel Hill's three historic districts, which gives it a lot of protections other parts of town don't have. It's an area well deserving of those extra steps to maintain its character, but one does wonder what the point is when its most striking structure is torn down without a protest.

The Historic District Commission, rather than the Town Council, had jurisdiction over this matter. The body's rules say that it should not authorize a tear-down without seeing the plans for what the new building will look like, but in this case that requirement was waived. All but one member of the HDC, which has several residents of the Gimghoul neighborhood in its membership, voted to allow this exception.

I don't mean to be so hard on the Gimghoul neighborhood leaders. In fact, if I could live in any area of Chapel Hill, it would be my choice. Their neighborhood has retained its unique character and beauty because of some of their actions over the years. Beyond that it has been put at great risk because of the UNC chiller plant, which the neighborhood was right to fight. It's quite possible that the urge to remove the church and its parking problem is an overreaction to getting burned by UNC three years ago.

I support neighborhoods in Chapel Hill that want to preserve their historical character -- but part of that means actually preserving the buildings that give it historical character. There were no easy solutions to saving the St. Thomas More church, but it's too bad that no one even tried.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Borrowing from David Price's playbook

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 12th, 2006

Joe Lieberman did a lot of things wrong leading to his defeat in the Democratic primary for the Senate in Connecticut on Tuesday. He did not launch a meaningful get-out-the-vote effort. He left $2 million in the bank -- money that if spent probably would have put him over the top. And of course, he made the tactical error of announcing a month before the election that he would run as an independent if he lost the primary, a move that alienated primary voters and probably was the biggest reason for his defeat.

But another error he made is a little more subtle and a little more local. He should have picked up the phone and called our congressman, David Price, for a little advice on how to deal with a challenge from the left.

Price, too, faced an energetic and articulate challenge in his May primary. He fended it off easily, winning more than 85 percent of the vote. There's an obvious big difference between Lieberman conqueror Ned Lamont and Kent Kanoy, who came up way short against Price: money. Lamont raised a lot of it, while Kanoy refused to take donations. But there are also a lot less obvious but meaningful things Price does that would have made it impossible for even a well-funded challenger to get much traction against him.

For one thing, Price maintains a high level of visibility locally, doing things that ingratiate him to the Democratic base. While Joe Lieberman at times in the last month seemed to be running his campaign on "Meet the Press" instead of on the ground in Connecticut, Price was headlining fundraisers for numerous local candidates for office. Just in the past few weeks he helped House challengers Ed Ridpath and Greer Beaty, both of whom reside in the western Wake County portion of Price's 4th Congressional District.

Folks almost invariably feel a closer connection to more local candidates for office like the state legislature. When Price takes the time to help them out, he earns the gratitude of all their supporters as well as the candidates themselves. Because he continues to show a deep interest in what's going on in every corner of his district even after 20 years in Washington, he has deservedly built up a reservoir of goodwill that makes him virtually unbeatable.

Price also handles criticism and tough questions a lot better than Lieberman did. Although he has been chided for not agreeing to a series of debates during his recent primary challenge, he has not hesitated to speak to large groups of people not entirely happy with his actions. For instance, he appeared at a well-attended forum sponsored by the Orange County Democratic Party last October about the war. Audience members were given color-coded cards they could hold up to express their positive or negative feelings about what Price said. A lot of folks expressed unhappiness about some of his remarks, but he remained articulate, patient and respectful.

Lieberman, on the other hand, seemed to develop an intense dislike of Democrats who challenged his views over the course of the primary season. He came across as not open to other people's perspectives, and, instead of reaching out to disaffected liberals, essentially declared war on them by announcing his plans to seek the seat as an Independent. It was tantamount to saying that he didn't need their support anyway.

It's safe to say that a lot of people who do not agree with Price on every issue voted for him nonetheless. A majority of Connecticut Democrats turned against Lieberman. It has a lot to do with temperament.

Of course, beyond the differences in their personalities, Price's voting record better represents the views of his constituents than Lieberman. Even if some folks feel he has been overly cautious about plans for withdrawal, he did vote against the war. He also has a long record of progressive accomplishments on issues like college affordability, war crimes prosecution and forcing candidates to take greater accountability for their negative campaigning.

Lieberman had some good achievements, but he let his dour demeanor and his close relationship with President Bush overshadow them. Price has almost universally stayed true to his liberal-leaning ideology and never minces his words about his dislike of the direction in which the president has taken our country. Folks know that when they hear Price speak, they are likely to hear a stinging indictment of the Republican administration, something that compares favorably to Lieberman's preaching about the need for all citizens to unite behind the president in a time of war.

I voted enthusiastically for David Price in May, and if I lived in Connecticut I would have voted for Ned Lamont on Tuesday. If Lieberman had wanted to remain in good graces with his Democratic base, he should have taken a few ideas from the Price playbook, as should any incumbent facing a similar challenge in the future. Price is a model for appealing to constituents who don't agree with him on everything.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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Rifles don't always shoot straight

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on August 5th, 2006

In most communities of Chapel Hill's size, an armed robbery downtown would be big news. But as shootings and gunpoint attacks on Franklin and Rosemary streets have become an almost monthly and sometimes more often occurrence, media coverage of these incidents has been largely relegated to the police beat.

That worries me. When individual acts of violence become so routine they don't seem like a big deal is when people are going to start going downtown at night a lot less often. We are in the process of a much-needed effort to revitalize our central business district by greatly increasing the number of people who live in it.

The continuation of this trend of violence poses a great threat to the fulfillment of that vision.

Last week's slaying outside the Avalon nightclub has proved to be an exception to the seeming indifference of the broader community to violence downtown. Homicides, thankfully, are still rare enough in Chapel Hill that they get a lot of attention when they occur.

However, I'm worried the reaction to this incident is shortsighted. Many folks have expressed the view that this crime was related to the culture that has been built up around Avalon. They think that shutting the club down will solve the problem, and it appears their wish will be fulfilled.

Putting Avalon out of business is a good start -- it's clear the management there has lost control of what goes on at their establishment.

But it's unlikely the violence will disappear with the club's closing. It will just move somewhere else.

The upswing in violence downtown may be rooted elsewhere than Chapel Hill -- there is rampant speculation that this most recent shooting was gang-related, and other incidents have also been traced to gang activity. Many of the victims have come from Durham, so it is possible that what we are seeing here stems from conflicts started elsewhere, although there are other possibilities.

Some folks will feel comfortable in saying that since most of these incidents have not involved people who actually live in Chapel Hill, we don't have much to worry about as long as we mind our own business.

But as my mom reminded me, rifles don't always shoot straight. And even if the chances of any of us individually getting shot or robbed are pretty small, we still need to take back downtown as a place where people can feel safe living and going to at night.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell has done a great job of reducing violence and gang activity in his community. Simultaneously, though, there has been an increase in that kind of crime in Chapel Hill, making it seem like some of that activity has just been relocated rather than stopped.

Bell could not have foreseen the regional impact his crime-fighting efforts have had, so I don't fault him. Overall there's been a significant decrease in Durham crime, even if some of it has apparently moved down the road. But Chapel Hill, rather than taking actions that will simply relocate the problem, should take regional leadership in working to solve it.

Gangs in our area should not be viewed as a Durham problem or a Chapel Hill problem or a Raleigh problem.

It's time for the elected and law enforcement leaders throughout the Triangle to get together for a serious dialogue about what's happening, and come up with a joint action plan for solving it. Previous efforts have been shortsighted, and we've seen the effects here in Chapel Hill.

There are folks already doing good work to make downtown safer. Liz Parham and Andrea Rohrbacher, in their roles respectively as executive director and chairperson of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, have worked with the Town Council to get five new police officers for downtown. The officers should be on the beat by February and will doubtless help make a dent in some of the problems we've been seeing.

But to really solve the problem, we need to get to the root of it. That can't just be done by throwing money at it. It's going to take a lot of careful thought and cooperation from various interests throughout the Triangle, but with the brain power and civic mindedness our region benefits from, I'm confident it can be done.

I have a vision that five or 10 years from now all the condominiums downtown will be filled, there won't be an empty storefront, and all the grumbling of recent years about the demise of Franklin and Rosemary streets will be a distant memory. But it won't happen until the return of the days in Chapel Hill where any crime involving a weapon is a stunning and rare occurrence.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill NC 27516.

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Work to clean up North Carolina politics

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 29th, 2006

Folks are taught from an early age that if they have a problem with something that a governmental body is doing, they should contact their representative. It's safe to say a lot of progressives in Orange and northern Chatham counties have had a lot of problems with the actions, or lack thereof, taken by the North Carolina General Assembly during this year's session.

The most glaring disappointment is the lack of meaningful ethics/lobbying reform.

It's clear many legislators want to get as much out of their status as they possibly can and are not committed to making the real changes that could help North Carolina residents better trust their elected officials.

But this is by far not the only failed opportunity to make the state better during this session.

A full slate of good environmental bills have been killed by the moneyed interests around the General Assembly, ranging from strong standards to create cleaner cars to the common-sense issue of electronics recycling, for which the Orange County Commissioners have provided a great model.

Another session will pass without a death penalty moratorium. The bigwigs in the Ram's Club at UNC are still saving money by giving star athletes from outside North Carolina in-state tuition, and the list goes on and on.

The blame can't be placed on the Democratic or Republican parties alone -- they're both complicit in the culture that has been created in Raleigh, and it means local residents of all affiliations should be concerned and should feel compelled to take action to change it.

We could all contact our own legislators to express our displeasure about these issues, as we're taught to do in school. But it's not their fault. In state Sens. Ellie Kinnaird and Bob Atwater, and Reps. Verla Insko and Joe Hackney, we have as progressive and proactive a delegation in Raleigh as we possibly could.

Voters in Orange and Chatham have consistently elected the good guys, and the result is that it is our elected officials on the front lines fighting to change the way the system works to put the balance of power back in the hands of the common man.

For that we should commend them, and we should also commend ourselves for putting the right kind of people in power.

But obviously the four of them are not enough to enact an agenda that improves the daily lives of North Carolinians.

That doesn't mean local residents have an excuse to just sit on their hands and talk about how it's not our fault.

It means we need to take our involvement to another level and engage our friends, family and neighbors across the state in the political process. We need to show them the important things that aren't happening in the General Assembly, and we need to get them contacting their representatives, who more than often will need a little more prodding than the people in our delegation.

It's no secret that folks in our area are among the most involved and knowledgeable in the state. It's also no secret that usually the most important thing to politicians is getting reelected.

When representatives from places like Bertie and Scotland and Gaston counties start hearing as much from their constituents about the need for substantive ethics reform and other components of a progressive agenda as our representatives do here in Orange and Chatham, then we will start seeing some change.

It means putting more time in. It means e-mailing friends in other counties, calling them and telling them what's happening. It means looking up their home legislators' names and giving them their contact info so it's as easy as possible for them to make their voices heard.

But if we can help to create a stronger voice from the grassroots across the states that makes legislators realize they need to shape up or move out, it will be time well spent.

Of course, for some folks in the General Assembly no amount of lobbying is going to change the way they are, and they just need to be defeated for re-election.

Local residents can spend their time this fall volunteering in other districts to elect the sorts of candidates that are committed to a more transparent and constituent-responsive government.

Within less than an hour's driving distance there are several highly competitive House races where there are opportunities to replace legislators who have been roadblocks to change.

It's been another disappointing session, but instead of complaining about it, it's time for us as individual citizens to take a wider interest in the actions of our politicians across the state instead of focusing solely on what's happening in our own backyards.

If we start working now, maybe this time next year we'll have a better feeling about our Legislature.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist

and a recent graduate of UNC.

Readers can contact him at or

c/o The Chapel Hill Herald,

106 Mallette Street, Chapel Hill NC 27516.

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Coming up next for Bill Faison ...

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 22nd, 2006

As this year's state legislative session winds down, one of the most interesting trends for the Orange County delegation is the silence of Bill Faison, representative from N.C. House District 50 that includes part of Orange as well as all of Caswell County.

During his inaugural session last year, he made all sorts of noise. He attracted attention statewide as one of only two Democrats to vote against the state budget, while gaining notice locally for his effort to force a referendum on district representation for the Orange County Commissioners through the N.C. General Assembly. This drew him the enmity of many other local elected officials, who thought his efforts were an attempt to wrest power away from them.

This year has been a completely different story.

Amazingly, his name has not even appeared in the pages of this newspaper since early March.

The thing that makes his lowered profile during this session even more perplexing is that while his attention-making actions have been minimized, his ambition to move on to a position of greater power has exploded. He has expressed interest in serving as speaker of the House if current speaker Jim Black steps down, and in running for governor.

These are pretty high hopes for a first-term legislator, so what are Faison's chances of achieving either position? Not good, but not impossible.

One reason for Faison's less rebellious behavior during this session could be his ambitions to be speaker of the House. Voting against the budget did not endear him to very many of his colleagues last summer, and he may be hoping that toning down his act will help that vote to be forgotten if he enters the speaker election in January.

Another thing that can help past indiscretions to be forgotten, as always in politics, is money. Faison's best hope for being elected speaker through the support of the Democratic caucus is probably liberally dispensing his significant personal fortune to legislative candidates throughout the state in an effort to earn their loyalty.

It might sound like a far-fetched way of getting ahead, but there's a precedent for it in Faison's short-lived political career. During his hard-fought primary campaign in 2004 against Orange Commissioner Barry Jacobs, he garnered a lot of support by pouring large amounts of money into a wide variety of community groups in northern Orange and Caswell counties.

The more likely scenario, though, goes back to the independent streak Faison showed during the 2005 legislative session. His voting with the Republican caucus on the budget shows some ability for him to form alliances across party lines.

If the 2006 election ends up with a Democratic majority of say, 63-57 in the House, Faison would only need to bring four Democrats with him to cut a deal with the Republicans that would make him speaker. It's not unprecedented -- Joe Mavretic put together a bipartisan coalition to earn the top spot for one term in 1989.

The chances of any of this happening are slim. Most likely either Jim Black will continue in the position or be replaced by a longtime Democratic legislator who has built years of relationships with his or her colleagues. But it's not impossible and Faison will doubtless attract some attention.

The even wilder of Faison's ambitions is a possible gubernatorial run in 2008. His prospects may have been helped by Attorney General Roy Cooper's announcement last week that he will not be running -- two well-known opponents are always easier to deal with than three.

Believe it or not, there's already polling out on that future race.

Faison earned 6 percent of the support in one recently conducted by Raleigh's Public Policy Polling, compared to 36 percent for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and 23 percent for State Treasurer Richard Moore. More than one-third of the electorate remains undecided, not terribly surprising 21 months out from the election.

Faison has an uphill battle trying to run against two foes with strong statewide political organizations. The good news for him, compared to most candidates with such a gap in name recognition, is that fundraising shouldn't be an issue thanks to the fortune he's amassed as a medical malpractice attorney.

But it seems inconceivable that merely pouring tons of advertising money into the race in 2008 will be enough.

He needs to start doing something soon to become more prominent across the state.

Considering how stacked the odds are against him to become either governor or speaker of the House, it would seem that the best chance Faison has for political advancement in 2008 is if Ellie Kinnaird of Carrboro retires and he runs for her N.C. Senate seat. It's a position he's familiar with though, as few people would have predicted he would knock off popular commissioner Jacobs in 2004.

His adept dispensation of money helped him to that seat, and he's not likely to be deterred from trying to repeat that success in the next two years.

Love Bill Faison or hate him, it's hard to ignore him.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette Street, Chapel Hill NC, 27516.


Take a walk to get to know our town

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 15th, 2006

I'm hopelessly unathletic so I don't go running or to fitness clubs to do rigorous physical activities or anything like that. But I also don't want to turn into a blimp so the compromise is that I walk almost everywhere I go. It's good exercise but also not overly straining.

I try to walk two hours a day, but when I started living on north campus as a sophomore while attending UNC I started veering away from that goal. With all of my classes, dining and other daily activities within a ten-minute walk, I was barely getting any exercise in the course of my everyday life.

My pants weren't fitting very well anymore by about late September of that year, so I started walking just for the sake of walking.

I traipsed through many of the neighborhoods of Chapel Hill, which accomplished three things.

First, I saw far more of the town than most students ever do. We have a definite tendency not to think about anything that isn't on a major drag, and my walking helped keep me from falling into that trap.

Second, it helped shape my political views about the town.

I saw firsthand how beautiful Chapel Hill's neighborhoods were, but I also saw that some of them were at risk of losing their character if the growth around them wasn't managed carefully.

This was during the middle of the 2003 Town Council election where those sorts of issues were in the forefront, and it led me to work for the election of Bill Strom and Sally Greene.

Three years later it seems inevitable that I would have become heavily involved in local politics, but I don't know that it ever would have happened if not for my sojourns to the interior of Chapel Hill.

Third, walking just for the sake of walking, with no particular destination or agenda gave me some rare but much needed time to get away from the hustle and bustle of my daily academic and extracurricular life and just think about things, or if necessary, think about nothing.

I still very much value these walks and the beauty of Chapel Hill. I tend to begin by taking the Bolin Creek Trail from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Community Center Park. I particularly enjoy this stretch of the route shortly after a heavy rain when Bolin Creek becomes the Bolin River.

A major river through downtown is the main thing I think the larger communities of the Triangle are lacking. I'm jealous of Hillsborough and the Eno.

That said, the heavy rains also bring heavy buildups of trash in the creek near Franklin Street, and that's a problem for which I hope a good solution is found sooner than later.

Crossing into Community Center Park you can smell from a distance the scents of its beautiful rose garden.

This is truly one of Chapel Hill's hidden jewels. I recently took a friend there who despite being an alumnus and the son of a longtime faculty member never knew it existed. If you've never been there, you should go check it out.

After that I hook up with the Battle Branch Trail through Battle Park, the place I walked in most regularly when I was living on campus. Half of the park is owned by the town and half by the university.

UNC recently did some sprucing up of its portion, and it looks beautiful. The Town Council has done its part too, warding off efforts by some folks in the community to pave its part of the trail. This is the most pure nature area in central Chapel Hill that I'm aware of. It probably doesn't look much different than it did during the time when its namesake, UNC President Kemp Plummer Battle, fell in love with it a century ago. It has taken strong collaboration between the dominant entities in town to keep it that way, one that can hopefully be replicated on the Horace Williams tract in the future.

After that I head up the trail into the Gimghoul neighborhood, where I would buy a home if I won the Powerball. Otherwise I don't think I'll ever be wealthy enough to live there! For now, though, I enjoy walking through it.

The beautiful and well-known garden of sisters Bernice Wade and Barbara Stiles is everything it's cracked up to be, but it also overshadows the fact that many of their neighbors also have exceptionally well-kept front yards that would brighten the neighborhood on their own.

If I'm walking near dusk I also enjoy the frequent sighting of two deer, most often near Gimghoul Castle.

These are the two most fearless of their species I've ever seen so I wouldn't encourage getting too close. I almost got plowed over by one of them a couple years ago.

The route just described takes about an hour. For that hour of your time you see some of the beautiful hidden secrets of Chapel Hill and can truly escape the stresses of every day life. And hey, it can also keep the weight away!

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate from UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

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A return to council in new era

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 8th, 2006

Bill Thorpe returned to the Chapel Hill Town Council last December after an 18-year break. He had previously served from 1977-1981 and 1983-1987, or as I like to jokingly remind him, before I was born. The council adjourned for its summer break last week, and I got Councilman Thorpe to take some time out of his busy schedule to tell me how things have changed since he last served. The biggest difference he sees is a great increase in both internal and external communication flow.

In 1977, there wasn't much to the town staff beyond the manager, attorney and clerk. He says the large expansion of the town's professional staff over the years has made it much easier to be a good elected official because the information council members need is more readily available.

He also noted that he's greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to work with Town Manager Cal Horton, whose knowledge of the way a council/manager form of government should run has made the operations of the town much more efficient.

He's also glad that e-mail has increased citizen participation, particularly pointing to how he received more than 100 messages from residents of Coker Hills, regarding the possible creation of a neighborhood conservation district for their neighborhood.

He said the main way constituents communicated during his previous tenure was by phone calls, and that it was nearly impossible to get as wide a variety of perspectives on issues before the council then as is possible now.

He said one of the pleasant surprises of his current tenure on the council has been how well its members work together.

He was particularly pleased with how harmonious the recent process for choosing Horton's successor was, saying that the mutual respect members of the council have for each other allows them to better serve the residents of Chapel Hill.

During some of his previous terms, he says, members had a tendency to do a lot more posturing at the meetings to try to get their names in the paper.

He appreciates what he perceives as the more businesslike approach of his current colleagues, and also points out that citizens participating in the governing process have their time spent more effectively when elected officials listen more than talk.

One problem that hasn't changed much from Thorpe's previous terms is that of UNC students getting involved in town governance.

The mechanics of town government aren't very glamorous, and with busy academic, extracurricular and social lives, few of them choose to spend much time getting involved in the town. The byproduct is that few future leaders of Chapel Hill are being produced.

Town leaders have wrung their hands over this problem for years, but Councilman Thorpe appears to have found a solution. The unfortunate reality is that most students aren't going to get involved just out of a sense of civic duty. They need an incentive, and thanks to Thorpe's leadership, a paid internship program has been approved that will be put in place this fall.

Ten undergraduates a semester will be given the opportunity to receive credit and a small stipend in exchange for working 12 to 15 hours a week in some facet of town government.

The small price Chapel Hill is paying to put the program into place ($20,000 in the new fiscal year) will be more than repaid if it helps to increase the number of UNC grads who choose to settle here and serve the community.

Thorpe promised during his campaign to work toward the creation of this internship program, and I'm not the least bit surprised he has followed through.

I first met Bill in September when he called, never having met me before and said simply, "Young man, why aren't you working on my campaign yet?"

I was and continue to be impressed by his aggressive, yet respectful leadership style. He knows how to get things done and he responds to constituents.

But he is just one member of a team, and it was heartening to hear that of the five teams of council members he has served with, he finds this one to be among the most functional. Chapel Hill voters have carefully chosen their elected officials in the past few elections, and the result has been an effective Town Council that the community can be proud of.


A tale of two towns' head hunters

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 1st, 2006

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., a community in many ways similar to Chapel Hill.I continue to be very involved in both places, although in Ann Arbor, my greater interest is in the governance of the school district, while here I am most interested in the town.

This dual residency often gives me an opportunity to compare how each place does things. About half of the time, I see things in Chapel Hill that I think should be replicated in Ann Arbor, and just as often I see things in Ann Arbor that I think should be replicated in Chapel Hill.

Never was that more true than in the past two months as Chapel Hill embarked upon its new manager selection process while Ann Arbor picked a new school superintendent.

The most important thing in picking a new chief executive has to be getting a large field of qualified candidates.

When governing bodies need to do this they frequently hire consultants. Chapel Hill hired two experienced human resource experts who are also very involved in the local community, Anita Badrock and Tim Dempsey.

This decision drew criticism from some town activists who thought that hiring a firm that specializes in these kinds of positions would have been a better choice. Ann Arbor, on the other hand, hired the Michigan Association of School Boards to conduct its search, a group that among other things specializes in conducting superintendent searches.

Based on the number of applications for each position, the hiring of Badrock and Dempsey was clearly the right choice. Chapel Hill received 120 applications, while Ann Arbor received only 26.

The reasons for this are pretty clear. Not only are Badrock and Dempsey talented professionals, but they also have a personal interest in ensuring that Chapel Hill has strong governance.

They made this their priority for three months, and the results speak for themselves.

With a much larger pool to choose from, Chapel Hill was able to hire a manager with years of experience as the manager in a sizable city. Although I'm confident the new superintendent in Ann Arbor is going to do a great job, he has never held the top position before, and the district where he was the assistant superintendent is smaller than Ann Arbor.

The choice to hire qualified local residents to oversee the manager search process was a good decision by the town council, and one other communities could learn from.

When it came to engaging citizens in the selection of a new leader, Chapel Hill could learn some lessons from Ann Arbor, though.

For instance, while trying to develop a profile for the new manager, Chapel Hill invited about 30 citizen activists to a Saturday morning meeting to give their feedback at Town Hall.

Ann Arbor, on the other hand, had several well-publicized meetings at a variety of different times that the entire community was invited to for the purpose of stating what it wanted in a superintendent. This was a better way of encouraging people to get involved.

Once finalists were chosen, Chapel Hill invited the community at-large to ask the candidates questions at Town Hall.

However, there was no formal channel for residents to give their feedback on the candidates.

In Ann Arbor, the school district solicited applications for citizens to serve on a committee that interviewed the superintendent candidates and then gave formal, written feedback to the bard of education on what it felt to be each of the finalists' strengths and weaknesses.

This gave community members a more formalized stake in the process and is something local governments should think about doing the next time they hire new chief executives.

That said, I think the process as a whole for selecting a new manager in Chapel Hill was very well done. Some have questioned the fast time line, but I think it's great that the new manager now has two months to learn the lay of the land before moving into the position. He will be much better prepared now to hit the ground running than if he had not been hired until later in the summer.

Even though it only took a few months, the subcommittee of the town council that chose the finalists thoroughly vetted the candidates, going through a multilayered interview process.

It took an extensive amount of thoughtful work to choose the three finalists and Kevin Foy, Bill Strom, Bill Thorpe and Ed Harrison should be thanked for their willingness to put in all that extra time on top of their already large duties as members of the council.

And most important, Roger Stancil will be an outstanding manager. Not only does he have a lot of experience, but he is also a courageous leader. He has shown a willingness to make the right move even if it isn't the most popular one, and that's a trait I greatly respect.

Thanks to the work of the consultants and the town council, Chapel Hill has a bright future even as it loses Cal Horton's steady leadership.

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Time to get aboard TTA 'train'

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 24th, 2006

For the most part I love living without a car in Chapel Hill. From my apartment near Foster's Market it's a 10-minute walk to Town Hall, a 15-minute walk to campus and about a 30-minute walk on the Bolin Creek Trail to University Mall. These are all distances short enough to travel on foot under any circumstances and it's good not to even have the motorized option to tempt me. Unfortunately, though, my life is not confined to Chapel Hill. My best friend lives in Raleigh, I love going to Durham Bulls games, and as a recent UNC grad I could end up working pretty much anywhere in the Triangle. TTA is great at getting me to the airport but beyond that it could do a much better job of serving Orange County.

Before talking about the changes that still need to be made though, credit should be given to TTA and the Orange County representatives on its board, Bill Strom and Alice Gordon, for some recent improvements. In the last year they have helped create two express routes of great benefit to residents of our county, one connecting Chapel Hill to Hillsborough and another connecting Chapel Hill to Raleigh.

The latter route has quickly become the most traveled in the TTA system. This shows that regional bus riders like the express route concept. This makes sense -- in my experience it cuts an hour off taking a standard TTA bus to Raleigh, which requires making a transfer at RTP.

The problem is that express service between Chapel Hill and Raleigh is pretty limited. Only three buses run each way during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The last bus for Raleigh leaves Chapel Hill at 8 a.m., pretty much leaving people who don't need to get to work until later in the day braving I-40 in their own cars. Similarly, in the afternoon the last bus leaving Chapel Hill to take Raleigh residents back home goes at 6:40, leaving folks who need to work late or want to dine or attend a lecture in town out of luck.

I think there's a pretty simple solution to this problem. Considering the high volume of ridership on express routes between Chapel Hill and Raleigh compared to normal routes, service between the two cities ought to be expanded to all day on the hour from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. This would encourage folks who just need to go to a midday meeting in Raleigh or who work outside the standard 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule to use public transportation.

TTA could also do a better job of serving people attending major events. I frequently took the 4:30 express bus to Raleigh to meet a friend to go to Carolina Hurricanes games, but after the game there was no choice but to make him drive me all the way back to Chapel Hill because buses have stopped running for the night by then.

Thousands of folks from Durham and Orange counties attended each Hurricanes game. Some sort of shuttle service between the western Triangle and the RBC Center, if marketed effectively, could provide a valuable service to Hurricanes fans while increasing TTA's ridership. I know a lot of students without cars who would have loved to go to hockey games but just had no way of getting there.

TTA also should think about starting a shuttle service between Chapel Hill and Durham. There aren't a lot of stops between the two cities on the current routes, but on average it takes just under an hour to get from campus to downtown Durham on TTA. However, if folks can drive their own cars the same distance in half the time, they have little incentive to use public transportation. Tons of people travel between Chapel Hill and Durham for work every day, and a user-friendly bus service could become a popular option for them.

As TTA attempts to garner federal support for its regional rail plan, it could use an outpouring of citizen support for the services it provides. Regional rail is a good idea, but as it stands, most of the advocacy behind it is coming from prominent government and civic leaders rather than normal people.

If I were Senator Burr or Senator Dole, I would be more inclined to give a helping hand if I saw a groundswell of support for the TTA from everyday citizens who benefit from its current activities and were confident their lives would be further enhanced by giving it the chance to implement regional rail. Creating more user-friendly services and expanding popular ones like the express routes could greatly increase current ridership and help build a loyal group of users whose support would be useful as TTA attempts to take its services to an entirely new level.

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Cheer on UNC in College World Series

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 17th, 2006

Their coach returned to his alma mater a few years ago, replacing someone who had a reputation for not treating his players terribly well. The coach has a long record of coaching very successful teams that underachieve in the postseason. The team is led by four underclassmen picked in the draft and likely to leave for greener pastures after this postseason, making it imperative that they win the national championship now because it might be a while before they have this good a team again. It sounds an awful lot like the 2004-2005 national championship Carolina basketball team, but the description also fits this year's UNC baseball team -- and if the Diamond Heels play well over the next week they too could finish number one.

It's easy to stop thinking about Carolina sports once the basketball season is over and the students are gone. But if you don't check out the baseball team in the College World Series you're missing out. An obvious reason is that it's probably the best team in the history of the program. But the reason I would count this as my favorite UNC sports team ever in any sport is the way they selflessly work together with a singular focus on winning.

Coach Mike Fox takes a lot of flak from fans for his ever-changing starting lineups.

The Tar Heels have had about as many permutations of the starters this year as they have had games played, and that's one of the reasons I like the team most. Every game there are good players who don't make it into the starting lineup. Folks constantly get moved around in the batting order. These are the kinds of things that prima donna athletes complain about all the time, but it seems like these players take it all in stride and do whatever they can to help the team win regardless of their role in a given game.

Take sophomore outfielder Matt Spencer. He started almost every game for the first couple of months of the season but lately has been coming off the bench, frequently to pinch run.

He did a great job taking second base on a wild pitch in the ninth inning of last Saturday's win over Alabama.

Spencer would be starting every day for just about any other team in the country, but he is doing a great job as a role player here.

This is also a team blessed with players who have shown an ability to persevere and grow.

Take freshman outfielder Mike Cavasinni, for example. At the start of the season he was a dreadful hitter, to the point that he finally lost his spot in the starting lineup. But he kept on working hard, got back into the lineup, and now has become a fearsome leadoff hitter.

Sophomore catcher Benji Johnson is another example of someone who has really grown as a player. As a freshman his at-bats were sometimes painful to watch, and when he hit a home run in the first game of this season I was shocked.

As the season's progressed he's become the team's biggest bopper, hitting some of the longest home runs I've ever seen.

The Tar Heels have three second basemen, Bryan Steed, Garrett Gore and Kyle Shelton, who play almost interchangeably. They all deserve to get more at bats, but they all play their best when they get in the game.

Sophomore outfielder Seth Williams, a big home run hitter as a freshman, has struggled with injuries this year but has adjusted his game to be a dangerous clutch hitter.

Chad Flack got most of the limelight after last Saturday's big win, and justifiably so. But the win would not have been possible if not for the contributions of four other Tar Heels. Third baseman Reid Fronk reached base in both innings, in the eighth inning on a well-timed hit by pitch. Fronk has taken one for the team more than 20 times this year, making him a leading run scorer.

Relievers Matt Danford and Jonathan Hovis each got the team out of dicey situations in the game relatively unscathed. Hovis, the only senior on the team, has played a quiet but integral role on the team for four years. Redshirt pitcher Luke Putkonen pitched a flawless eighth inning, setting the stage for Flack's heroics.

And of course there are the stars who you've probably heard about already. Pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard will be multimillionaires as soon as the season ends. Robert Woodard, who is not as highly acclaimed as his fellow starters, doesn't know how to do anything but win. Josh Horton was an All-American, Tim Federowicz a freshman All-American and Andrew Carignan a lights-out closer. Jay Cox's little brother is the cutest child in the world, providing a lot of entertainment for Boshamer Stadium patrons. Cox is OK himself, as the team's overall best hitter.

This is a special team, and the remaining opportunities to check them out are limited.

All of the College World Series games are on ESPN or ESPN2. They played Friday, and results are in the Sports section today. They will play again Sunday. Take some time out of your life to watch, hopefully, UNC's next national champion team.

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Seeking answers on Carolina North

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on June 10th, 2006

There has been a lot of controversy about Carolina North and the town-gown dynamic.The UNC Board of Trustees recently passed a resolution telling its staff to have a plan for Carolina North ready by October 2007. The reason for the hurry at this point in time is unclear, considering how long it has delayed substantive planning. It has already been more than 12 years since the first committee to discuss the development of the Horace Williams property was convened, and considering the scope of questions that must be answered, 16 months does not seem like much.

But it is the BOT's prerogative to put together any timeline it wants for planning on its end, so hopefully its staff will put together a plan that is both logical and feasible. The big questions they need to answer through this process are why this research campus will be successful, why it needs to be at this location and why it will be a good thing both for the university and the surrounding communities.

For instance, UNC seems to be making an assumption in its Carolina North plans that a lot of business and industry will want to relocate there. However, the similar Centennial Campus at N.C. State has performed well below expectations.

Can UNC convincingly show us in 16 months that its project will be more successful than its peer in Raleigh? I sure hope they have tenants lined up before they seek permission to start building.

One thing UNC seems interested in placing at Carolina North is institutions related to health and medical research.

This could be a good idea, but the unfortunate reality is that the grant money from the National Institutes of Health that much of that research would rely on is presently getting cut rather than increased because of federal budget deficits and the president's misplaced priorities. Should UNC move so quickly while necessary funding sources are so unstable?

UNC should also show why Chapel Hill, rather than somewhere else in the system, is the best place to put this sort of satellite campus. There is little doubt that if these plans are successful it will provide at least some level of economic development for the area.

But the Triangle is booming while other parts of the state languish due to outsourcing and other economic woes. Would it not be better for the overall interests of the state to put something like Carolina North in the eastern part of the state or the Piedmont?

UNC leaders frequently talk about their responsibility to the rest of the state in the context of chiding local officials for asking too many questions about their plans, so I'm sure this is an issue they will consider seriously. I don't know the answer, but I expect UNC will provide it for us in the next 16 months. (And an adequate response would not simply be that they own the Horace Williams tract.)

Whatever sorts of plans UNC ends up proposing over the next 16 months, it needs to show some tangible proof that they will be successful. At a bare minimum, UNC should be able to show that there are research campuses similar to the one it is proposing that are located in communities that have similar characteristics to Chapel Hill.

I want to see that something like Carolina North has been a win-win proposition for both the university and the city elsewhere in the country before I can be convinced that it will be here.

The things I've discussed so far are just the big picture questions to establish why it's a good idea to build Carolina North in Chapel Hill. If UNC can effectively show that need, it then should come up with a site plan that maintains the current quality of life Chapel Hill residents enjoy -- particularly in terms of protecting the neighborhoods near the Horace Williams property and minimizing the environmental impact of the development.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro's leaders have argued in the Leadership Advisory Council meetings that there needs to be a transit plan for Carolina North.

They're right to do so -- and building a new Interstate 40 interchange is not the sort of creative planning this community deserves from UNC when it comes to this development.

Much controversy was caused recently when several members of the Board of Trustees made comments of a negative tone toward the Chapel Hill representatives on UNC's Carolina North committee. But considering the possible magnitude of this project and how many of its basic characteristics remain unclear, Bill Strom, Cam Hill, George Cianciolo and Julie McClintock should be commended for their approach.

As a young Chapel Hillian, I am particularly aware of the way this project could enhance or destroy the local quality of life.

Asking pointed questions is not obstructing UNC's growth plans -- it is ensuring that this will still be a great place to live in 40 years. What more could we ask of from our elected officials?

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Young Black Leadership Needed in Chapel Hill

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on May 23rd, 2006

At the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP's annual Freedom Fund banquet last Saturday, one of the folks winning an award had to be rushed to the emergency room. It was a beautiful ceremony, a testament to the great leadership folks in the NAACP have provided over the years. But this incident also reminded me that much of the black leadership in southern Orange County is aging out, and there aren't enough people waiting to assume the mantle of leadership.

I was disturbed by the small number of attendees between the ages of 20 and 40 at the dinner, but I was not surprised. The number of black voters in local municipal elections has been dwindling in recent years, down to fewer than 300 in last fall's Chapel Hill election even though it was imperative that Bill Thorpe win to ensure continued minority representation on the Town Council. The last two successful black candidates were both in their 60s, and so were a significant percentage of the African Americans voting for them.

The lack of civic engagement by minorities in Chapel Hill is something the whole town should be concerned with. The primary reason for this problem is that many young black people who grew up in this community can no longer afford to live in it due to the escalating cost of living.

In some cases these folks may still be working in Chapel Hill, but are among the many who must commute here every day due to the lack of affordable housing. During the time I've lived in Orange County virtually every candidate for elected office has talked a lot about the need for more of it, but I've seen little progress. Our elected leaders and UNC need to do more to reverse this trend of declining leadership among young black people by making it possible for more of them to live here.

The town of Chapel Hill could also be doing more to encourage civic engagement among young black people. It was nice that the Continuing Concerns committee was created out of the Airport Road renaming discussions to deal with ongoing issues of race relations and the place of African Americans within our community.

Unfortunately, this group has largely been allowed to languish. The Town Council should reinvigorate this committee and give it a clear charge of preparing a list of recommendations for how the town can get more black people involved in town governance.

The good news is that some progress is being made. For instance, last week the council agreed to budget Councilman Thorpe's proposal for a student internship program with the town.

This is going to provide a great opportunity for young people of all colors to play a role in town governance and will hopefully result in more people deciding to settle permanently in Chapel Hill and get involved. This initiative is progress, but there is much more to be made.

Chapel Hill's black community has strong leadership, provided mostly by veterans of the Civil Rights movement. It was nice to see two of those leaders, Braxton Foushee and Eugene Farrar, each of whom have contributed to our area in many ways, honored with awards at the dinner last weekend. Fred Battle presented one of the awards in his role as president of the local chapter, and he too has provided strong and steady leadership for many years.

But these folks aren't getting any younger and there needs to be a new generation of leadership to replace them. It's going to take a commitment from the whole community, white, black and everything in between.

If we can make a strong effort to create affordable housing and take other steps to encourage participation in local government by younger people of color, we will preserve our strong black community for decades to come. I hope this is something all Chapel Hillians value.

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