Sunday, March 25, 2007

Serve on a Chapel Hill board

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, March 24th:

One of the great things about our community is that everyone has an opinion. The number of folks coming out to speak at public meetings and writing letters to the editor is far greater than most other places of a similar size.

The volume of people participating in these sort of one-shot ways of expressing an opinion on a town issue are thankfully as plentiful as ever. Unfortunately, though, it seems the number of folks willing to participate in the public service activities that require a sustained time commitment has declined in recent years.

During the last Chapel Hill Town Council election there were only seven candidates running by the time the dust settled. This was the smallest number of people putting themselves forward for service in at least two decades, even as the population of our town increases.

It’s not just the number of folks standing for election that has declined, though. There’s also been a clear decline in people interested in serving on the town’s important volunteer advisory boards.

For instance, last fall there was a real crisis with the Transportation Board. There were a number of open seats due to people quitting. There were some qualified applicants to replace them, but it took several meetings before a recommendation could be made to the Town Council that they be appointed because so many of the remaining board members were missing the meetings that they couldn’t get a quorum!

I can see the decline in the number of people willing to serve even just over the last four years through my own experience. I first applied for the town’s Planning Board in late 2003. Over the next two years I was justly passed over four times when vacancies on the board arose because there were folks who wanted them who had more experience in serving the town than I did. I finally got appointed in late 2005.

Contrast that with the situation that faces the Planning Board next month. Board chairwoman Ruby Sinreich, who has served the community in too many ways to count over the years, faces a term limit. There is only one person who has applied to be on a town board in the last 12 months and listed the Planning Board as their top choice!

With the amount of interest townwide in the development future of Chapel Hill, it’s amazing to me that more folks have not stepped forward to serve on the body where they can have the greatest impact on that short of being on the council itself. In the past four months alone the Planning Board has passed judgment on major projects like UNC’s latest development plan modification, Greenbridge, and East 54. Many folks in the community have stepped forward to speak out on these projects but none of them have stepped forward to help make those decisions in the future.

So I’m asking, maybe begging, interested citizens to apply not just for the Planning Board but any other board that they might want to join for next year. Choices range from the Greenways Commission to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Board to the Human Services Board, among many others.

Seats end on June 30, so over the next month or so the various boards will be hearing from interested applicants, and then making recommendations to the Town Council on whom to appoint. The council will formally make these decisions for the most part in May.

The form for applying is short and easy to fill out, which is good because if you’re interested in serving you should do it sooner than later. I know out board will be hearing from folks as early as April 3 and 17.

Some folks may be reluctant to apply because they think they’re not qualified or that it will be too large of a time commitment.

On the issue of qualifications, the main one is that you care about the future of Chapel Hill and have a genuine interest in serving the town. It’s easier to get up to speed if you have a lot of background in service to the town, but certainly not a requirement. Really, the only attribute absolutely necessary to be a good board member is an ability to work cooperatively with people even when you disagree with them. One bad apple can ruin a whole board.

On the issue of time commitment, it is to some extent what you make of it. For instance, Planning Board takes a huge chunk out of my colleague George Cianciolo’s schedule because he serves as the board liaison to several other committees. But for other folks it’s just coming to a meeting twice a month and carefully reading the packet. Either approach is fine, depending on what you have the time for. Some other town boards meet just once a month.

The next time you’re annoyed about something going on in town, write your letter to the editor, but think about heading over to as well and filling out an application to be on an advisory board. It’s one of the best ways you can serve our community!

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Tracey Williams-Johnson plays a key role for the Tar Heels

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, March 17th:

The UNC women's basketball team may be kicking off the NCAA tournament this weekend, but assistant coach Tracey Williams-Johnson has spent much of the last few weeks away from Chapel Hill.

Williams-Johnson is far from AWOL though. Rather as the team's recruiting coordinator, she is putting in the hard work necessary to ensure that future Carolina teams are just as good as this year's likely Final Four-bound program.

She spent last March 7, her birthday, in Atlanta recruiting at the Georgia high school basketball championships. March 9, she flew with head coach Sylvia Hatchell to watch the state finals in Arkansas, leaving at 5 and arriving back in North Carolina around 2:30 AM. There's no rest for the weary though, as Williams-Johnson was back up and at the Dean Dome early the next morning for our state championships.

Williams-Johnson has had a tremendous amount of success with recruiting during her eight years in the Carolina basketball program, helping to land such stars as Ivory Latta, Erlana Larkins and Camille Little.

A humble person though, she gives much of the credit to Hatchell, for whom she has a tremendous amount of respect. The pair have been friends since Hatchell's Frances Marion University teams faced off against the UNC-Pembroke teams Williams-Johnson played for in college.

I figured that considering the vital role Williams-Johnson has played during this period of great accomplishment in the UNC program, she might be top level head coaching material for some other program. Her response? “No interest at all. I love it here. There's no one I'd rather be working with than Coach Hatchell and the other wonderful people in this program.”

Williams-Johnson joked that it can actually be a lot harder to convince people to leave the program than to join it! Her newly hired assistant is former player Jessica Sell, who played a key role as a starter on last year's Final Four team. Sell's helping out with recruiting and is interested in becoming a coach some day herself further down the line. She says “there's no better person to learn from than coach Williams-Johnson.”

Sell said that in her own recruitment, one of the things that came across was how much like a family the UNC program was. Williams-Johnson agrees, saying that “the relationships we form here last a lifetime and that the love and respect we have for each other is a big part of our success.”

Williams-Johnson brought an interesting background to the Carolina program, working in administration for both the U.S. national team and for the short-lived women's professional American Basketball League. Although the ABL had a higher quality of play than the WNBA during its year of existence, the lack of institutional backing made it difficult to thrive.

From that background working in professional women's basketball, she thinks Ivory Latta will be good for the WNBA.

“She's a marketing dream. She has so much energy and never backs down and when young girls see that, it makes them want to be a part of this. Camille Little with her versatility and capability to be a threat both offensively and defensively inside and out will also be a tremendous asset to the WNBA.”

In those two positions she did a great job of promoting in general the game of women's basketball, but when the ABL folded she knew where she wanted to be. “Coach Hatchell and I competed against each other, worked as camp counselors at Campbell together, and worked together in the US national program. I knew she was the kind of person I wanted to work with.”

Williams-Johnson is one of the friendliest and kind-hearted people you could ever meet and folks around the ACC know it. For instance, when Miami came to play Carolina last month they had a snafu with their equipment. Their coaches knew that she was the person with the compassion and organization to bail them out with the problem, and she did.

With the duel roles of overseeing the recruitment of future teams while continuing to assist with the coaching of this one, Williams-Johnson doesn't have much time for much else but dotes on her parents in Sampson County as well as her husband.

Hatchell and the players get most of the attention for the team's performance, and they absolutely deserve it. Williams-Johnson says “our success and the relationships we have are all the recognition I deserve.”

Her modesty is appreciated, but coach Williams-Johnson deserves a lot of credit for the great success the team has had over the last few years. Her nature doubtless helps to show parents and potential student athletes what kind of a program they'll be joining at UNC and as her assistant Jessica Sell says, “she has a great passion and drive to win.”

The Carolina program has been doing a lot of that winning during coach Williams-Johnson's time in the program, and as they embark on another potential national championship run this weekend, they're real lucky to have her.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bev Perdue and Richard Moore's camps should cut down on the negativity

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, March 10th:

During the past two months Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and state Treasurer Richard Moore, both seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor, have been sniping at each other like the election is tomorrow. Problem being that it’s not for another 14 months.

Last month the Moore campaign tried to attack Perdue by dredging up 10-year-old statements she made about the death penalty and criticizing campaign donations she received while still a state senator. Perdue’s camp behaved in an equally petty matter, with her finance chair e-mailing supporters an article in Forbes Magazine that questioned Moore’s campaign contributions.

So what’s the impact of all this action been? Basically nothing; in a poll done this week by Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling Perdue holds a 10-point lead. In the same poll done in January she held a 12-point lead. The race is being defined by lots of interpersonal drama, but very little movement.

Perdue and Moore have each done a lot of great work for North Carolina during their time in statewide office and have solid, thoughtful ideas for the future of our state. Moore has been a tremendous leader on financial issues not just here but on a national basis, and Perdue has traditionally been a strong leader on military and education issues.

They would be well served to quit the banal bickering that is antagonizing many Democrats across the state and focus instead on the positive work they intend to do if elected Governor. There’s plenty of time for in-fighting at a more appropriate juncture, like maybe next March, right before the election.

It can be hard when you’re on the inside of a campaign to remember that no one cares as much about the minutiae of the race as you do. The reality, though, is that when it comes to this sort of insider baseball drama, the general public does not care. This poll shows how little impact it’s having on the race, so hopefully these two candidates, who both have so much to offer, will move beyond these “gotcha” issues to things more pertinent to the future of North Carolina.

On the Republican side there continues to be no candidate who gains any traction. In fact three of four candidates have lower percentages of the vote than they did in January, with the number of undecideds spiking up.

Conservative activist Bill Graham still leads but went from 24 to 20 percent, possibly because more respondents have become aware of the fact that he’s not the Rev. Billy Graham. State Sen. Robert Pittenger has similarly declined from 10 to 6 percent after a well-publicized spat with Congresswoman Sue Myrick that exposed him to be over ambitious and under-intelligent.

His Senate colleague Fred Smith went down 4 points as well. The only candidate getting any traction is former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, and though he’s up from his January performance, he actually had a small dip this month from a February poll.

Some folks have speculated that if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate for president next year it could drag down the rest of the ticket. But the only way one of these Republican gubernatorial candidates is getting elected is if the Democrats nominate Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich.

In the lieutenant governor’s race the biggest leader is undecided with 62 percent of the vote. Still Pat Smathers, the mayor of the small Western North Carolina community of Canton, is out to a small lead that has surprised many political observers. A look at the events page on his website may hold the clue to his success though, as in the next two weeks he is scheduled to be at functions in Morganton, Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington. Keeping up this intense statewide travel schedule has historically been the key to winning these lower-profile statewide races, and Smathers is doing it.

Although Smathers has the slight lead right now, all the candidates are pretty evenly matched. Former Mike Easley aide Hampton Dellinger, who grew up in Chapel Hill, has focused much of his energy on fundraising and has accumulated a considerable war chest. Walter Dalton, who finished second in this latest round of the poll, is busy serving in the state Senate and is also likely to be a formidable fundraiser. Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse is the top choice of many in progressive circles and could have a strong grassroots presence behind him further down the line.

There’s been a lot of discussion nationally about how much action is happening so early in the presidential race, and the same is holding true across North Carolina. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with that, but it would be great if the candidates used the increased amount of time and attention devoted to the races to communicate their views to the voters rather than ripping each other to pieces.


Monday, March 05, 2007

TTA giving 20 pennies for your thoughts

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, March 3rd:

Do you use public transportation very often? If not, what would you encourage you to use it more? Wireless Internet? More comfortable buses?

The Triangle Transit Authority is asking those questions in a creative web survey currently available on its site at Folks are given twenty “pennies” to spend on a variety of possible upgrades to buses as the agency makes replacements in its fleet.

Some of the items are pretty cheap. One-penny upgrades include things like expanding the front-of-bus rack to accommodate three bikes rather than the current two or to install 10 bike lockers per year at various stops around the Triangle.

Others are so expensive they will use up almost your entire “budget.”

For instance, putting a rear window on the back of the bus would cost 16 pennies and implementing Sunday service would require all of your money.

I take the bus every day to work in Raleigh at the Sierra Club so I devoted my greatest expenditure of six pennies to fuel the buses using B20 biodiesel.

Seems like the right thing to do working in the environmental community. It’s not the cleanest fuel TTA could use but it would still be a definite step in the right direction.

I gave three pennies to have wireless internet on the buses. I actually enjoy its current lack of presence to some extent because the two hours I spend on the commute each day are about the only main chunk of the day where I’m not attached to my e-mail.

On the other hand, I’d like to see a lot more Chapel Hillians who commute to Durham or Raleigh use public transportation, and for the busiest workers out there that extra period of connectivity could give folks the impetus to dump their cars and take the bus. There are also certain days where it would be nice to finish something up on the ride home so it’s not waiting the next day.

Another four pennies went to providing headrests for the seat on the buses. It’s kind of amusing to see all the people in suits napping on the way to work in the morning, and although I try to read books I must admit that the allure of sleep is often too much to pass up.

This expenditure would go a long way toward increasing the comfort of riders.

Those three items were my highest priorities but I still had seven pennies left. This sum wasn’t large enough to buy any of the big ticket things but good enough to get a few other small enhancements.

Four of the pennies went to building five regular bus shelters. Nothing will get you back behind the driver’s seat faster than getting soaked while waiting for a ride. Five is not a lot considering the scope of the TTA system but it’s still a step in the right direction.

I decided to give the balance of my “funds” to installing 10 bike lockers per year at various stops. I’m not a cyclist myself, but I think a lot more folks who don’t want to actually take their bike on the bus would be happy to ride it to the stop and know it was somewhere safe when they got home in the evening.

Some of the big ticket items I eschewed spending my funds on included real-time bus arrival information at 10 stops (the buses are pretty prompt!) and creating a 100 space park-and-ride lot. Some of the smaller ones I can live without were luggage racks and individual high-quality lights at seats.

The “Transit Design Game,” as TTA calls it, is one of the most engaging ways of soliciting citizen input I’ve ever seen a local agency use.

The information the TTA gleans from this should give it a much better sense of how to improve the riding experience for current customers as well as what sorts of amenities are likely to draw more people in the future.

A lot of the time the path to better citizen participation is not just to schedule a bunch more meetings folks have to go to, but to create a way for them to give feedback that is simple and even fun.

With this project TTA has set a good model that other local governments should look to find ways to emulate when soliciting opinions from the public about various issues.

Whether you’re a public transportation user or not, go to and play the Transit Design Game, which will be available through this Friday. It’s a great opportunity to have some fun while also giving important information to the folks who buy our buses.

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