Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Public Financing System

As printed in the Chapel Hill News on Wednesday, July 25th:

Since 2003 I've worked heavily on the campaigns of six candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council and two for Orange County commissioner. Six of them raised enough money to do everything they wanted to in the campaign and two of them did not. Six of them won and two of them did not. You can probably guess what the correlation was.

That's why I'm so pleased that the legislature passed a bill last week that will allow Chapel Hill to do a pilot program for public financing in municipal elections.

The core requirement of the bill is that "the candidates participating in the program must demonstrate public support and voluntarily accept strict fundraising and spending limits in accordance with a set of requirements drawn by that government."

The success of the program in encouraging a wider variety of candidates to put themselves forward for public office will depend on how those parameters are met when the specific requirements of it are set.

In order to "demonstrate public support," I think candidates should raise a minimum of $2,500 from at least 50 individual contributors who are residents of Chapel Hill in order to qualify for public financing.

This may seem onerous, but since our tax dollars will be paying for the program we need to make sure that it is spent on serious candidates. For the most part, if someone cannot raise an average of $50 from 50 different people they don't have the level of support necessary to mount a viable campaign.

An additional step to ensure that the $2,500 is raised from moderate-size donations would be to establish a guideline that only the first $100 of the Chapel Hill maximum contribution of $200 would count toward the baseline for public financing. A similar system is used in the federal public financing system. Candidates using public money should also be restricted to donating $200 to their own campaigns. A minimum donation of $10 would be worth considering as well so folks don't load up on large checks and reach the required number of donors by picking up $1 donations.

Candidates that reach the qualifying threshold should receive a matching amount of $2,500 in public funding. In most cycles you can run a perfectly viable campaign for $5,000 in Chapel Hill. In the last election, newcomer Laurin Easthom finished first overall and spent less than $4,000.

Even though Easthom was able to do that, the 2005 election was somewhat unusual in that no single candidate spent a large amount of money. It's sort of like a Prisoner's Dilemma. When one candidate raises a ton, others tend to feel like they need to also. If no one does that, then a cheaper campaign is possible.

It is likely that sometime we will see another campaign like 2003, where several candidates infused a lot of their own money and spent more than $10,000 apiece. So we need to make sure the "strict fund-raising and spending limits" called for in the bill are not too low, to ensure that well-funded candidates who eschew public financing don't get too big of an unfair advantage.

I think a reasonable cap for participating in the public finance program would be $7,500. So candidates would have to raise at least $2,500, would then receive $2,500 in public funds, and could raise another $2,500 on top of that if they so chose.

I cannot see a scenario where a candidate who reached out to voters and had a compelling message would lose a race due to a lack of money by only spending $7,500. It would be because there were four stronger candidates in the field, not because of insufficient funds.

Ideally there could be a $5,000 maximum, but I don't think that does enough to protect against the possibility of some folks running very expensive campaigns. Based on my experience, $7,500 is a good middle ground.

There are also a couple things in the public-financing system for statewide judicial campaigns in North Carolina that Chapel Hill might consider. One is a provision for "rescue" money for publicly financed candidates if an opponent not using the system raises an inordinate amount of funds. This could entail either receiving a larger public allocation or increasing the cap on fundraising. A second thing in the judicial system worth implementing is a neutral voter guide mailed to all Chapel Hill voters so they can be informed about their choices.

I throw out this proposal mainly as a starting point for community discussion. I hope there will be a lot of public input because the rest of the state will be watching us to see how this works, and it would be great if we can develop a successful model that becomes broadly implemented after the five-year study period allowed in the bill has passed.

If we do this right, we will never have a serious local candidate lose due to a lack of money again.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Making the Community Garden grow

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, May 12th:

Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman recently told me that his town is always looking for programs that combine a grassroots economy, community building and environmental stewardship.

The new Carrboro community garden, which will be at Martin Luther King Jr. Park for at least the next few years, certainly fits the bill. This project is a natural for a town that is already home to a cooperative grocery, a community radio station and a housing cooperative.

I recently chatted with Sammy Slade, April McGreger and Jay Hamm of the Carrboro Community Garden Coalition about their plans for this new town initiative.

Hamm told me that they plan to plant basic Southern vegetables, things like squash, tomatoes, okra, beans, peppers, melons and sweet potatoes. They're committed to making sure that nothing they grow goes to waste and will distribute their yield in a variety of ways, including distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to needy people in the community.

The importance of locally grown food is becoming increasingly important in this era of heightened environmental awareness. The shorter the distance food travels, the less carbon dioxide is generated in its transport. It's also fresher, cheaper and healthier. Slade thinks the garden will play a great role in "building community and combating global warming."

Collaborative gardening is certainly an activity that requires teamwork. Right now there are about 20 folks involved in Carrboro's community garden effort and it's increasing rapidly through word of mouth. McGreger said that many of the folks involved in this project had known each other before but have become much closer as they've worked together on the garden, and that the community-building aspect of it is as exciting as the growth of the food itself.

The group is planning to do a lot of its work on Saturday mornings but as of yet has no regular schedule. If you're interested in getting involved you can e-mail to be added to their electronic discussion group.

Hamm said that their vision is that the garden project will let people see that community gardens can be "abundant, beautiful and doable," and inspire similar smaller projects throughout the rest of the town, state and world. For instance, he'd like to see Carrboro move from this initial townwide garden to having small ones in each neighborhood all over the community, allowing folks to work in even smaller and locally oriented groups to produce food.

McGreger said another nice aspect of the process in getting the garden started has been the opportunity "to learn how to participate in direct democracy."

Many people involved had never worked with town staff and elected officials before, and they've found it to be a positive experience. All three spoke glowingly of the folks they've worked with in the Parks & Recreation Department as well as Public Works. Slade also made sure to say that while the entire Board of Aldermen has been supportive of their efforts, "Dan Coleman has been our main liaison from the town and the person who has kept us informed and worked to move the project forward."

Coleman told me that he first learned to garden in a community garden space shared by a dozen families, some experienced gardeners and some, like himself, newbies. Still very much a novice, he hopes that he can learn more by helping out at CCGC and expose his 6-year-old son to the benefits of community gardening.

This project just makes sense. They're using public space that otherwise might not be put to any formal use before construction of the park begins in a few years. It's going to produce fresh food for local residents who might not otherwise have access to it while providing other folks with fruits and vegetables that might in the absence of the garden have come on a truck from somewhere out of state.

Since local residents are raising their hands to do the work themselves, there's not anything coming out of the town budget to pay for it other than staff time -- a good thing in a year of tight budget times.

The benefits the community garden produces will indeed be far more than the investment Carrboro is putting in to make the program work.

As Jay Hamm said in summing it up, the project is literally "growing community." Kudos to both the folks in the Carrboro Community Garden Coalition for bringing this forward and to the elected officials and staff for the town of Carrboro for working together to make it happen. It's a great example of government functioning well, and one that can serve as an ideal model for other local communities.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Want to seek office? Here's some advice

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, May 5th:

Last weekend I had the pleasure of serving on a panel organized by the Community Action Network about running for local office. CAN is concerned, as am I, about the declining number of people putting themselves out to serve the public and its event was a wonderful step in the right direction.

All of the panelists had interesting anecdotes and tips to share about their experiences running for office.

For instance, former Carrboro Alderman Allen Spalt was mortified during his first campaign to open up the newspaper and find that he had been listed as a Republican! An accomplished liberal activist over many years, he used this example to show the importance of swiftly correcting any inaccurate information put out about you in public.

Charlie Lancaster, who has served as a campaign treasurer for Kevin Foy and Laurin Easthom, made some good points about the financial aspect of running a campaign. One key tip he related was that even though you are only required to list the occupation and employer of a donor if they give more than $100, there's the possibility that if they give you $50 in September, they might give another $50 in October. So it's always good to get that information ahead of time!

Former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Nick Didow talked about how much more there is to being an elected official than necessarily meets the eye. It's not just going to meetings. He said that folks frequently came up to him in the grocery story to give him a piece of their mind. He wasn't complaining, though; he said as intense as it got at times, the experience was always very rewarding.

Ruby Sinreich, Chapel Hill planning board chair and editor of, talked about the use of technology in the campaign. She noted that we have gotten to the point where no serious candidate for office would go without a Web site, but that doesn't mean candidates need to break the bank either. For instance they could start up a blog to serve as a campaign Web site for free. That's what Mark Kleinschmidt did during his successful re-election campaign.

Kleinschmidt was also on the panel, and he emphasized the importance of working well with the media. He said forging strong relationships with folks in the press and keeping them in the loop about things going on with the campaign makes it much easier for a candidate to get the message out.

I focused most strongly on the mechanics of running a successful campaign. Here are four tips I would encourage any candidate for public office to keep in mind:

* Be organized. Have specific people overseeing specific parts of your campaign, and know well in advance what you're going to do and when you're going to do it. Planning ahead will help keep everyone's sanity intact and ensure that you don't make any critical mistakes, especially by forgetting to do something until after it's too late.

* Get a good group of volunteers and show your appreciation for them. There's no way to run a campaign by yourself. You need folks to put up signs, work at the polls, write letters to the editor and do lots of other stuff. These people could be spending time with their families, going to the movies or doing about a million other things but they're taking time out because they care about you and what your election would do for the community. Make sure to let them know how much you appreciate it as often as you can. It will make for a happier and more productive campaign team.

* Use your friends. Before you pay a graphic designer to make your brochure or give someone a bunch of money to do your Web site, think about who you know that might be able to do it well for free. Odds are they'll be more attentive to you than someone who's more worried about getting a pay check anyway.

* Maintain your perspective. If someone writes something unpleasant about you on a blog or you don't get an endorsement you had hoped to receive, don't let it get you away from your campaign plan. One thing itself will almost never break a campaign, but letting it distract you from everything else you need to be doing could.

This fall there are four seats open on the Chapel Hill Town Council, four on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, three on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and three on the Hillsborough Town Board.

Democracy thrives when voters have a number of strong candidates to choose from.

Check the TV listings for the replay schedule of the Community Action Network's election workshop on the People's Channel -- it's worth a watch whether you're considering a run yourself or even if you're just interested in knowing what goes into a campaign.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Folks gotta be more open minded

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 28th:

Last week a number of neighbors of Freedom House, an addiction and mental illness treatment center in northern Chapel Hill, came out to speak against a proposed expansion of the facility.
Most of their concerns centered on safety. One neighbor, Cingai Chen, summed up the rhetoric pretty well by saying, "We are very worried about some day those patients will create a safety concern for our community."

The operative words in that statement are "some day." The reality is that Freedom House has been in our community for more than three decades and there have never been problems. It's a well-run place with tremendous success stories and has never created anything resembling a crime problem. There's no reason to believe expanding the facility would change that.

A similar thing happened in the early 1990s when the AIDS House opened up in Carrboro. There was a good deal of rhetoric about what "element" would be brought into the community and the negative impacts it could have. Now, nearly 20 years later, it's provided a great service for some of our residents and it's never brought a lick of trouble.

In both of these cases and others that have cropped up through the years, people are speaking out and acting mostly based not on factual information or what has happened but because of their fear of the unknown.

It's a basic human impulse, but it's also one worth staying away from as much as possible. Instead of making knee-jerk assumptions, folks should put more time and effort into learning about their neighbors and how to best coexist with them. It would make for a more harmonious community.

I think this is pertinent in particular to two issues that we will continue to face in the next couple of years.

One is panhandling downtown. I read a lot of angry letters to the editor about folks asking for money, and if it's keeping residents and visitors from feeling safe there then it's certainly an issue worth finding solutions for. But punitive measures are not the way to go.

The pragmatic reasons are that for the most part folks aren't doing anything illegal, and an ordinance passed four years ago intended to crack down on aggressive panhandling hasn't seemed to do anything to cut down on the complaints anyway.

Maybe even more importantly, morally it just is not right to punish people who are poor for doing what they can to sustain their lives. Instead of complaining about the panhandlers, it would be better for people to write letters to the editor suggesting feasible things we can do as a community to make it so that there is no need for folks to do it.

The way to eliminate the issue of panhandling is to work toward eliminating the issue of poverty. That's a much more productive exercise for a community than coming down on its most vulnerable residents.

The other issue forthcoming where I think it will be important for people to move beyond their fear of the unknown is the location of the new IFC men's shelter. This is an issue that has been around for years, but has not reached any sort of conclusion because every time a new site is discussed neighbors organize and blow the idea out of the water.

It's going to have to go somewhere, and I bet it won't be nearly as bad a neighbor as folks expect it to be. They may be leery because people often show up in the police beat with the IFC shelter listed as their home address. Interestingly though, a study done from April-July 2004 found that less than 10 percent of the folks who listed it as their address were actually staying there when they were arrested.

The perception of homeless people going around and committing crimes is completely overblown. I hope that wherever the shelter ends up being sited, folks in the area will go there and volunteer and get to know the residents instead of coming to public meetings and making negative generalizations. Again, taking the time to get to know that which is unknown will ease our fears and make us a better community.

Issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health tend to be difficult ones to talk about and deal with. But we have to be informed about them and step outside our comfort zones to get a greater understanding of the role they play in our community.

Shoving them aside or trying to leave them for some other neighborhood or group of people to deal with does not help us move forward. Conquering our fears of the unknown is essential to create the kind of society we want to live in.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Seven tips for a winning political campaign in Chapel Hill/Orange County

Ruby Sinreich over at Orange Politics blogs about a workshop we are participating in this weekend for potential candidates in local elections. Sponsored by the Community Action Network, it's worth coming out for on Saturday from 10-Noon at Chapel Hill Town Hall.

In advance of the event I put together a list of seven tips for winning a local election:

-Be organized. Have specific people overseeing specific parts of your campaign, and know well in advance what you're going to do and when you're going to do it. Planning ahead will help keep everyone's sanity intact and ensure that you don't make any critical mistakes, especially by forgetting to do something until after it's too late.

-Get a good group of volunteers and show your appreciation for them. There's no way to run a campaign by yourself. You need folks to put up signs, work at the polls, write letters to the editor, and do lots of other stuff. These people could be spending time with their families, going to the movies, or doing about a million other things but they're taking time out because they care about you and what your election would do for the community. Make sure to let them know how much you appreciate it as often as you can. It will make for a happier and more productive campaign team.

-Utilize your friends. Before you pay a graphic designer to make your brochure or give someone a bunch of money to do your website, think about who you know that might be able to do it well for free. Odds are they'll be more attentive to you than someone who's more worried about getting a pay check anyway.

-Get your fundraising done early. The last two months before the election you will have so many forums to go to and questionnaires to fill out that time will be precious. Getting your money taken care of before the stretch run is a big help.

-Maintain your perspective. If someone writes something unpleasant about you on a blog or you don't get an endorsement you had hoped to receive, don't let it get you away from your campaign plan. One thing itself will almost never break a campaign, but letting it distract you from everything else you need to be doing could.

-Make sure your campaign is focused on the right audience(s). If you're running for Town Council, going to University Mall and handing out flyers to folks who may not even live in town is not a good use of time. Getting a list of people in your neighborhood who regularly vote in municipal elections and going door to door to their houses is.

-Utilize all the communications outlets you have available to you. Think the newspaper oversimplified your ideas about something? Expand your thoughts on a blog. Think there's a neighborhood your message isn't getting across in? Send them a targeted mailing. Want to get students involved? Go to them where they are. Every individual voter uses a different process and body of information to decide who to support in an election. You should do your best to get your message across through a variety of mediums so that you can reach as many people as possible.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

H77, North Carolina Renewable Energy Bill, would do a lot of good

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 21st:

I was pretty cranky earlier this week. My power went out at 10 a.m. on Monday. I had to go to Greensboro for a business meeting in the late afternoon, and when I got back around 9:30 p.m. I found that my apartment complex was still pitch black.

There has been a rash of crime in my neighborhood recently -- in at least one instance violent. So I moved with trepidation toward my door since I couldn't see anything and then spent several minutes nervously trying to find the lock and the correct key.

I finally got inside safely and went straight to bed. When I got up at 6:15 the next morning I found that there was no hot water in the house. It probably wouldn't have mattered anyway though because there are no windows in my bathroom, making it the darkest place in the apartment. So I went to work unshowered, feeling pretty disgusting.

The thing I found most paradoxical about the entire episode was that our power was knocked out on a beautiful, sunny day!

One person who was not at all cranky about his power situation is environmental leader and Greenbridge developer Tim Toben. His farm in western Orange County, which runs largely on renewable energy sources, was generating "excess power." He relates that "you couldn't see the blades of the wind turbine, because they were moving so fast."

Folks who get a good deal of their energy from solar power were probably laughing at all of us without it the early part of this week, too.

Renewable energy is the way to go in North Carolina, and the good news is that if a bill introduced in the state House this session passes you won't have to install a wind turbine or a solar roof on your house to benefit from it.

House Bill 77 is a bipartisan proposal that would require 20 percent of the power provided by our utilities to come either from renewable sources or energy efficiency by the year 2021.

Recently, Duke Energy proposed building two new coal-fired power plants in Cleveland County, near the South Carolina border. These have been described by some environmental activists as "global warming machines."

Toben says that "wind turbines on the coast and in the mountains, sited safely away from bird migration routes, would produce 1,200 megawatts of power." This would produce roughly the same amount of power as the one coal-fired plant that the North Carolina Utilities Commission has approved at Cliffside, and as Toben points out would do the trick while producing no carbon, no nitrogen dioxide, no sulfur dioxide, no particulates and no mercury.

It's just common sense that if we can produce our energy in a more sustainable way while significantly reducing pollution, we should do it.

Where do our local officials stand? Rep. Verla Insko is one of the bill's 56 co-sponsors. The Chapel Hill Town Council, at the behest of Councilman Ed Harrison, unanimously passed a resolution in support of it at a February meeting. They should be commended for their leadership.

Speaker Joe Hackney is not a co-sponsor of the bill, but in his new position he doesn't really sponsor anything. Considering his long record of environmental leadership he will surely do what he can to be supportive.

Rep. Bill Faison also is not a co-sponsor, even though most of his colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle have already shown their support through that outlet. It surely would not hurt for him to hear from his constituents in northern Orange County about how important it is for him to take leadership on this issue.

Also disappointing is that our major utility companies, Duke and Progress Energy, have not come out to show their support. Duke, in particular, under the leadership of chairman Jim Rogers, has made a lot of noise about moving toward cleaner energy sources. Given this, one might think they should work to see this bill passed. If you are a stockholder at either of these companies, drop them a line and let them know what you think.

Obviously this week's power outages were a minor nuisance, especially in the context of other events occurring both nationally and internationally. Nonetheless, it should help put the spotlight on the emergence of renewable energy sources as valid providers of power.

North Carolina's elected leaders have a great opportunity to show strong leadership on this issue. It's up to them to take the ball and run with it in the coming months, and it's also up to normal citizens to put the pressure on them to make it a priority.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP showing the right vision

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 14th:

My very first column last spring dealt with my concern about the lack of young black leadership in our community.

I’m still concerned but the good news is that help is on the way. Local NAACP leader Jesse Gibson has brought forward a great plan for a Youth Council that will help to engage teenagers of all races in serving their community. He and the rest of the organization’s leadership have successfully seen the creation of such an organization through Chapel Hill’s lengthy approval process, and it’s now official.

Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP President Fred Battle, who has been a fierce advocate for young people as a long time activist and former school board member, says that frequently the reason they are reluctant to get involved in the community is that they don’t feel adequate to the task. He sees a primary function of the Youth Council as helping these folks to build leadership and become confident in their abilities to help guide the community.

While the Chapel Hill Youth Council is in the planning stages, there are good models of functional ones across the state in communities like Durham, Greensboro, and Goldsboro. Battle envisions members of the council becoming intimate with all aspects of town governance.

This would include things like getting to know members of the Town Council well and understanding the way that operates, as well as seeing how the town’s many advisory boards work. Battle thinks that if the students involved in the program are exposed to a broad array of things involved in the running of the town like greenways, parks and recreation, or planning they will become interested in at least one thing and be motivated to become more engaged in it.

That kind of experience working with individual town departments could also help to inspire folks to enter public service on the staff side, leading them to seek the training and expertise necessary to make a career working in local government.

He also hopes to see the Youth Council have a considerable community service component to it. The steering committee the Town Council has created to oversee the program will help to set the specifics for this but I have an initial suggestion. It would be wonderful if they could work to ensure that everyone in their high schools who will be 18 by this fall’s elections register and vote for their local officials. One of the best ways to engage the members of the Youth Council in the community right away could be to have them take the lead in getting the rest of their peers involved.

Students spend plenty of time in the classroom learning about government from lectures and textbooks. Certainly that’s important, but getting the sort of real world experience the Youth Council hopes to provide should go a longer way in getting people excited about serving the community.

It will take a while to measure the long term success that this program has, but Battle’s hope is that five, 10 years down the line when a call goes out for people to serve on a committee or even to run for office, the young people who have been involved will be eager to raise their hands up to serve.

I don’t know whether or not the Youth Council will have a major effect on the number of younger people engaged in the community, but I do know that the problem is indisputable. Young people vote in paltry numbers; Democracy North Carolina released a report just last week showing that more folks 18 to 25 are binge drinkers than voters. The issue of young black people involved in the community is even more acute, with the number of African-Americans voting in the 2005 Town Council election dropping below 300 in Chapel Hill.

The Youth Council proposal the NAACP has brought forward will work to keep and engage Chapel Hill natives in town and serve as a great partner to the internship program Councilman Bill Thorpe has helped bring to fruition over the last year that hopefully will have the same effect of keeping UNC students around and contributing to the community.

Every new initiative designed to get young people more involved in Chapel Hill is a step in the right direction. The leadership of the NAACP should be commended for its vision and commitment in bringing the Youth Council proposal to the table, and I hope community leaders will do their part to make this new entity a great success. These sorts of programs are what we need to ensure that a new generation of leadership is fostered.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An alternative to Apple Chill?

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 7th:

We're coming up on the first anniversary of last year's Apple Chill debacle and rightful cancellation, and it seems to be on people's minds. Last week the Town Council approved a plan for a new summer concert series and craft festival conceived at least in part to substitute for the absence of the old event. I think the plans they passed sound nice and will be good for the community. But I still think the lack of a townwide celebration in the spring that brings folks in from around the region before the students go home will leave a void.

I believe there's a solution to that problem, though -- a solution that would bring people together, be unlikely to create the sort of crime problems associated with Apple Chill, and provide a wonderful model of town/gown relations.

Nothing brings the disparate elements of the Chapel Hill community together more than UNC basketball.

Likewise, nothing brings more folks from around the state into our community and spending money than UNC basketball.

It may be too late for this year, but I think we should start a new tradition the third or fourth weekend of every April with a parade down Franklin Street to honor the UNC basketball teams, both men and women.

It would give fans, locally and beyond, one last chance to express their appreciation to the Tar Heels before the beginning of the summer.

When the men won the national championship in 2005, there was a lovely event honoring them in the Dean Dome at 4 p.m. the next afternoon, a Tuesday. That was fine for me as a student living on campus. But it likely didn't do much for the working folks in Charlotte and certainly not much for fans in Atlanta or the D.C. area.

We schedule our lives around the games for five months, pour our heart and soul into them.

But when the season ends, win or lose, it's an abrupt ending. There's not much in the way of closure.

Sure the conclusion of the women's season was disappointing but a Final Four season is still something to celebrate. Yet when they came back from Cleveland, there was little in the way of something to show our appreciation with. The men beat Duke twice, won the ACC tournament for the first time in nine years. Getting back from the Elite Eight at nearly midnight though, they didn't have a ton of fans there to greet them.

The good folks at the Visitors Bureau are always looking for opportunities to bring more folks into town, staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants, frequenting our shops.

Using the parade as a center piece, it could be the impetus for folks to come spend an entire weekend in Chapel Hill. Show off Memorial Auditorium with a free concert. Do something nice on McCorkle Place. Tie it in with UNC baseball games or the spring football game. Figure out creative ways to showcase Franklin Street.

It would provide the perfect opportunity to create a premier spring event to bring people into Chapel Hill and celebrate the collaboration of our town and university.

So I'd like to see Town Manager Roger Stancil, Athletic Director Dick Baddour, Chamber of Commerce head Aaron Nelson, Downtown Partnership leader Liz Parham, Visitors Bureau chief Laurie Paolicelli and other interested community leaders sit down together sometime in the next few weeks and think about giving it a shot for 2008.

It would be great to get students involved, too. The UNC student government, under the strong leadership of Chapel Hill native and just-departed Student Body President James Allred, this year reinvigorated "Spring Fest" as an opportunity for music and fun at the end of the school year. Incorporating the event into a broader spring celebration between UNC and Chapel Hill could be a good project for new president Eve Carson.

There is no doubt that Apple Chill outlived its usefulness in our community.

But instead of looking at it as a loss, we should seize it as an opportunity. Designing a large-scale event from scratch will allow us to learn from some of the pitfalls of the past, while coming up with ways to accentuate what is good about our community.

We can design a series of events that appeal to a wide array of people, creating an atmosphere of unity while also helping to stimulate economic activity in the area. There's certainly nothing to lose by discussing it, so let's get that talk going.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

2007 UNC Baseball team is dominating

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, March 31st:

It breaks our hearts that when we turn the television on CBS tonight Roy Williams won’t be there.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Tar Heel fans won’t get a chance to see our beloved coach today.

There isn’t enough space in this column for me to enumerate all the reasons I love Roy Williams, but one of them is how supportive he is of the UNC baseball team. Lots of folks probably saw him on ESPN in Omaha during the College World Series last year. Fewer folks know that when UNC went to play a road series at Duke last April, Roy was picnicking with his wife on the first base line in Durham.

Far from a bandwagon fan, he’s been to at least four games so far this season, including Wednesday night’s 28-3 thumping of Davidson.

When he heads out to Boshamer Stadium, he sees quite a show. As vaunted as last year’s national runner up was, this year’s team is actually off to an even better start.

Folks thought we would have trouble recovering from the loss of star pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard to the pros, but so far we haven’t skipped a beat. Robert Woodard was the most consistent if least hyped pitcher of last year’s starting trio and moves further up the list for various UNC pitching records every time he takes the hill. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 47th round last summer, he should move a lot further up in the draft order this time around.

The rotation is rounded out by freshman Alex White and last year’s midweek starter Luke Putkonen. White has pitched better than I ever remember Bard or Miller pitching as a freshman. He is already a star, and it’s hard to comprehend how good he’ll be pitching for the Tar Heels in two years (in baseball, once you go to college you have to stay three years before going to the pros.) Putkonen has adjusted well to the tougher hitters he faces in the weekend games, with an undefeated record so far on the season.

The real excitement this team is providing though is with their bats. Freshman Dustin Ackley immediately became my favorite player on the team in the second game of the season when he blooped a hit to short left center field and ran it out into a double. I liked his hustle then, now I like even more that he is batting an amazing near 500.

Maybe the best example to show how much punch this team has is that catcher Benji Johnson, a Chatham County native, hit two home runs on Wednesday night- off the bench!

Left fielder Reid Fronk always seems to find a way to get on base. In an exciting late February game against nationally ranked Coastal Carolina, he got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings to win it. Second baseman Garrett Gore is in the lineup for his stellar defense, but he is markedly improved with the bat and hit his first career home run earlier this week. Third baseman Chad Flack is struggling but will doubtless soon get back to the star form that launched UNC into the College World Series with a dramatic home run against Alabama last spring.

The outfield positions are an embarrassment of riches with a menu of choices including freshmen Drew Poulk and Tim Fedroff, who have each already shown an ability to hit for power, the speedy Mike Cavasinni who started in center field during most of last year’s championship run, and Seth Williams who provides both solid defense and a steady bat.

Orange County’s own Josh Horton is likely to be a first round draft pick this spring and continues to provide a hot bat at the shortstop position. After spending the summer with Team USA, catcher Tim Federowicz is now doing double duty as a strong relief pitcher while continuing to hit well and play solid defense.

Bottom line, this team is loaded, fun to watch, and primed to take care of last season’s unfinished business.

I can’t promise ‘ol Roy will be there this afternoon, but the Tar Heels are at home each of the next two days against in conference rival Wake Forest. Personally I think there’s no better spring experience in Chapel Hill than enjoying a game at the Bosh on a warm spring night, and the opportunity to do that presents itself each of the next four Tuesday nights at 6 PM.

It was a disappointing end to the basketball season but between the women’s basketball team’s trip to the final four in Cleveland this weekend and this outstanding baseball team there’s plenty of sun on the horizon for Tar Heel fans.

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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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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why all the fuss over Greenbridge?

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 24th, 2007:

In my day job for the Sierra Club, I work with volunteers from around the state to get local governments to implement green features into their public buildings. It can often be a struggle to get a few compact fluorescent light bulbs here, some LED traffic lights there. Small victories in the public sphere are much celebrated and appreciated, and in the private sector you can pretty much forget about it even though in many cases those improvements actually would save a lot of money further down the line. That's why it's just beyond me that there's been so much hubbub about the proposed Greenbridge development, which is up for approval by the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday night. We have a chance to locate in our downtown what will be one of the most progressive and environmentally responsible buildings in the country.

We have a great opportunity to solidify our community's reputation as a center of innovation, and we should take it.

A brief overview of the cutting-edge features Greenbridge will include are geothermal heating and cooling, a green roof, rain water harvesting and the incorporation of solar energy.

The proposed development is at the corner of Rosemary Street and Merritt Mill Road, on the edge of the Northside neighborhood. The big controversy then, at least in the local newspapers, is a concern that this project will cause damage to the vitality of the African-American community that has long defined that area of town.

The funny thing about that is when the project went to Town Council for a public hearing last month, the only person attacking it from that angle was a white UNC student. Every black person who spoke was in strong support of the project.

Three people's words particularly resonated with me.

One was Mildred "Mama Dip" Council who has operated a business just down the street from the proposed development for years. She said that she doesn't feel threatened by Chapel Hill's growth and that she's "happy to grow with it."

Another was Virginia Mason. An older African-American woman, her late father used to own the property where Greenbridge will be built. She said he would be proud to see such a wonderful project in this location.

The third was Delores Bailey, who has done an outstanding job as the director of Empowerment Inc. over the last few years. I've heard some folks say that the people speaking in favor of Greenbridge at the public hearing might not be representative of the neighborhood and that the council shouldn't move forward until everyone has been polled.

Frankly, you could apply that standard to any project since it is almost universally a minority of folks who go to meetings and speak out.

The fact that Delores, who pours her entire life into these neighborhoods, is supportive is good enough for me.

Maybe something different will happen Monday night but the discourse over Greenbridge so far puts the lie to the concept that this project is some white vs. black thing.

Rather the opposite, the process has brought white and black people together to talk about a vision for the future of downtown Chapel Hill and the Northside neighborhood.

That doesn't happen enough around here and it's a great credit to both the folks planning Greenbridge and neighborhood leaders that it has happened in this case.

One of the main concerns the Town Council had when this project was reviewed last month was that the affordable units weren't all on site.

The Greenbridge team, made up of folks who live in and understand our community, took that concern to heart.

Not only will they all now be part of the Greenbridge development, but extra measures will be taken to ensure that they stay affordable for the long haul. Condo fees will be fixed, and they will be subsidized by a transfer tax on the sale of market-rate units.

It's not enough for a good Chapel Hill development just to be environmentally sustainable. It needs to be socially sustainable, and the extra steps taken to ensure that the affordable units will remain affordable are encouraging.

It is a rare opportunity for a community to have a building designed by William McDonough, named by Time in 1999 as a "Hero for the Planet," anchor an end of its downtown.

In Greenbridge, the Chapel Hill Town Council has an opportunity to approve a building that will serve as a living, breathing monument to our status as the most environmentally advanced community not just in North Carolina but across the southeast.

Let's hope the council will do the right thing on Monday night.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lots of work going into Chapel Hill growth issues

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 17th, 2007:

Last Monday night's Town Council agenda pretty much summed up the amazing number of growth issues happening now in Chapel Hill. There are three developments on the table this month -- Lot 5 and Greenbridge downtown, the Residences at Chapel Hill North in the northwestern part of town, and East 54 on, well, East 54. There are also the issues caused by the large number of proposed developments -- re-evaluations of the comprehensive plan and tree protection ordinance, and a neighborhood conservation district in the Whitehead/Mason Farm area.

When all this stuff is going on, the Town Council and Planning Board (of which I am a member) get a lot of attention, as do the engaged citizens who speak out and make their feelings known.

Who don't get a lot of attention are the folks doing much of the work behind the scenes to make all of this happen. They're probably perfectly happy to keep it that way too, but the Planning Department, under the direction of J.B. Culpepper, deserves some recognition for all the extra work it's doing to keep Chapel Hill moving forward during this hectic period.

A perfect example of this is the work recently done in regards to strengthening the town's Tree Protection Ordinance. The Planning Board, concerned that the current ordinance is not doing enough to maintain the beauty our trees bring to Chapel Hill, decided to create a subcommittee to look at where improvements could be made.

This required staff members to spend a lot of time pulling together information about what other cities across the Southeast are doing. It also resulted in a bunch of extra night meetings for a crew of folks who already spend far too many evenings in Town Hall and away from their families.

There was never the hint of a complaint about this from Culpepper, development coordinator Gene Poveromo, urban forester Curtis Brooks or Emily Cameron of the Public Works Department, though. This process created a lot of extra work for the four of them, but all they cared about was being responsive to citizen concerns about trees in Chapel Hill.

It appears the council will move forward on some major changes, which will help to preserve one of the things folks most value about our community. The Planning Department should be lauded for the work it did to get us to this point.

Culpepper has aptly filled the big shoes left by her predecessor, Roger Waldon. Fortunately, Waldon continues to make a strong contribution to the town as a consultant for neighborhood conservation district processes.

The five NCDs that have commenced in the past year and a half have also been a big time commitment for the Planning Department. While Waldon and his employer, Clarion Associates, have done a lot of the work, it's also put an extra burden on several town staffers, namely Housing and Neighborhood Services Coordinator Loryn Clark and planner Rae Buckley.

NCDs provide a lot of comfort to folks who are worried about the direction their neighborhoods are headed. Their addition to the universe of Chapel Hill planning over the four years has been a very good thing for the town and is doing a lot to preserve the historical character of our community.

But they're also quite a time-consuming process, and while they go on, the normal flow of development applications does not stop. They, like revising the tree ordinance, create a lot more work for town staff. Chapel Hill residents should take a second to show some appreciation for the good things made possible by the hard work ethic of the folks in the Planning Department.

Renee Zimmermann, an administrative clerk in the department, probably best exemplifies how hard everyone in her office has been working lately. During the first 15 months I was on the Planning Board, she did not miss a single one of our twice-monthly evening meetings.

When she finally did, it was not because of a vacation but due to a death in the family. I wish for her sake she would get away for a while, but she really reflects the effort that's being put in to steer Chapel Hill through this period with a high level of proposed developments.

The high volume of newspaper articles, letters to the editor and blog posts about all the ongoing growth issues in Chapel Hill aren't going away anytime soon. When you read them and think about how much is at stake for our community, please give some thought to the underappreciated town employees who are giving their all to making sure this remains such a great place to live.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tall buildings are not going to destroy Chapel Hill

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on February 10th, 2007:

Several weeks ago I met Mayor Pro Tem Bill Strom and Andrea Rohrbacher, who is a leader in both the Sierra Club and the Downtown Partnership, for lunch at Foster's Market.

It was the day after the partnership had discussed the possibility of bringing street vendors back to downtown Chapel Hill, so we discussed the possibilities of that when we noticed that Linda Convissor, UNC's director of local relations, was in line. I'd never formally met Linda before, although I give her some of the credit for the current state of town/gown relations, which I've never seen better.

We asked Linda to come sit with us, and she told us stories about her days just out of college when she worked as the planning director in Bradenton, Fla., as well as continuing the discussion about how kiosks might potentially bring more folks downtown.

After a little while Town Manager Roger Stancil came in and he too sat down with us. We talked about the recent comments by the board chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, Anita Badrock, about expansions at Fort Bragg potentially bringing more money into the local economy here. We were interested to hear Roger's thoughts, as the immediate past city manager in Fayetteville, about how that would work.

The group we ended up having lunch with that day was pretty eclectic. While we all share a common concern about doing our best to improve Chapel Hill, we also come at that goal from different backgrounds and work through different channels and organizations toward that goal.

It was not a group that ever would have come together by planning, but we had a great time and some very good discussion. I thought it said something good about Chapel Hill that such a random group of people could meet up and talk about the community.

It got me to thinking about the consternation I've heard a lot lately about Chapel Hill "losing its character." This has especially come to the fore with the Greenbridge and Lot 5 proposals coming to the Town Council for approval later this month.

When I think about the character of Chapel Hill, the two main things that come to mind for me are the beauty of its landscape and the kindness of its people. If anything, I think taller buildings downtown will enhance that rather than diminish it.

Chapel Hill is growing and it will continue to grow. As a community, we have a choice. We can grow together, or we can grow apart.

If we build out in the county, we will be moving further and further away from each other. We will be reducing the contact we have with our friends and neighbors, and we will be destroying a lot of the natural beauty that makes Chapel Hill such an attractive and popular place to live.

If we build up downtown, we will be growing closer together. More people will live closer and closer to each other. We'll have more neighbors, and we'll see them more often. We will be growing in places where there is already a building footprint instead of cutting down trees and threatening watersheds.

Building a fence around Chapel Hill simply is not an option. We can't just pass all the growth of our community off to Durham, Mebane and northern Chatham County. I'm sure there are folks in our community who want to shut the door and keep our population where it is, but that's not realistic.

UNC gets bigger year after year, and that means it's constantly hiring more employees. If they're commuting from afar it creates a personal toll in terms of paying for gas and a communal toll in terms of all the extra pollution it creates. It's a win-win to have them living in this community, and it's a win-win to have them living in this community where they can walk places and not have to plow down currently undeveloped land.

Contrast downtown development with the other area of Chapel Hill that has gotten a lot of attention lately, the northwestern quadrant. While downtown population growth will likely generate more walking and bus trips, the proposed rapid growth around Weaver Dairy Road and the surrounding area will just serve to put more and more cars on the road. Certainly some expansion will have to happen both places, but growth downtown is much more in keeping with Chapel Hill's environmental values.

Beyond these land-use issues, it's our personal connections that give Chapel Hill its character. And as a long as a group of random citizens like Roger Stancil, Linda Convissor, Andrea Rohrbacher, Bill Strom and myself can meet for an impromptu lunch and have a good, friendly discussion about Chapel Hill, we'll preserve our small-town charm. Building a few tall structures downtown can never change that.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

College Park sparks big-time disgust

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

Sometimes it takes a road trip to make you appreciate how well you have it at home. That's certainly how I felt after going to College Park last weekend for the Carolina-Maryland women's basketball game.

I don't know whether I was more disgusted with the people or the landscape associated with the town and the University of Maryland. There's plenty to discuss about both.

I'll start with the people. Maryland students are not knowledgeable about sports. In the second half of the game, the Terps made a roaring comeback after UNC built a 20-point lead.

The Maryland fans were cheering a little bit about the comeback but what made them really excited was when there was a promotion during a timeout where a loud fan got a pizza. Forget the basketball game, the possibility of getting a free pizza was the thing really worth making noise over!

That left me wondering whether I was at a basketball game on ESPN2 between two of the three best teams in the country or a minor league baseball game. Because the only other time I could think of where some stupid in-game promotion was more important than the action on the field was at a Hickory Crawdads baseball game.

Needless to say the strong minority of Tar Heel fans there far outclassed the Terps fans, even on that hostile ground.

In their defense, it was not just the free pizza that produced crowd noise from the Maryland partisans. They also piped up when the scoreboard told them to! When they put a little noise meter up on the Jumbotron, that really got them going. I guess since Maryland students are intellectually inferior to Carolina's, they just need a little extra help knowing when to get excited.

Cole Field House was the home of Maryland basketball from 1955-2002. In addition to seeing many great Terrapin triumphs over the years, it also played host to the historic 1966 NCAA championship game lost by the all-white starting lineup of Kentucky to the all-black one of Texas Western.

It is in many ways similar to Carmichael Auditorium on UNC's campus. Both were great facilities for many years but eventually became too small for their purposes.

Carmichael has been well preserved as a facility for many UNC sports teams -- women's basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling.

Cole Field House has been turned into an indoor soccer facility. Blasphemy! One of the most historic venues in college basketball and it has just been ruined. Thank goodness UNC has more respect for its historic sports spots instead of turning it into an after-thought for intramural silliness.

I know a lot of people think UNC has a parking problem, but after seeing the copious numbers of parking lots on the Maryland campus I was grateful for our problem. There didn't seem to be a square inch on campus where you could stand without seeing a surface lot or a parking deck. And they're not nearly as well integrated into campus as the ones at Carolina. I certainly don't approve of the new Cobb deck, but at least it's decent aesthetically and sort of blends into the scenery. I think if the University of Maryland was a shopping mall its name would be "The Parking Lots at College Park."

After the game we were hungry so we decided to go check out College Park's version of Franklin Street. The nicest restaurant we could find was Applebee's. There was also an enormous wall separating the sidewalk from the road. I don't know if there's a problem with motorists trying to run down pedestrians or what but it was certainly unattractive.

My disdain for the university and town notwithstanding, it was an outstanding trip. Ivory Latta's 32-point performance shows that she's the kind of player who steps up to the plate for the big games. She should definitely be the national player of the year. Erlana Larkins and Camille Little had big games as well, and everyone on the team stepped up for a key play at one point or another.

For the second consecutive game I've seen classless Maryland's coach Brenda Frese, who seems to be molding herself on the Bobby Knight school of leadership, hurt her team with out-of-control behavior and a technical foul. It makes you very proud to have Sylvia Hatchell and her universally classy coaching staff.

It was great to beat Maryland, although I'm sure we'll see them again sometime down the road and it will be tough again.

And seriously, if you're ever feeling down on Chapel Hill or UNC, go to College Park and the University of Maryland. It will definitely make you proud of what we have in this community.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Joe Hackney will make a great speaker

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, January 27th:

"Throughout his career in the North Carolina House, Joe Hackney has always been a top-rated legislator. These high rankings are not earned by avoiding tough issues ... they are earned by clear thinking, consulting with all the players ... working in good faith to find winning solutions."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Those were just some of the words of Orange County Rep. Verla Insko in nominating her colleague Joe Hackney to be speaker of the House on Wednesday.

I wrote several columns last summer saying that it was time to clean up the legislature. It is unfortunate, but the actions of a small handful of people were allowing the image of the entire institution to be tarnished.

With its selection of the impeccably ethical Hackney as speaker this week, the members of the House have made a strong commitment to improving the image of their body, moving beyond the scandals of the last few years, and getting to work on the business of improving the lives of average North Carolinians.

Hackney struck the right note in his first address as speaker, promising to make sure the voices of all House members are heard and to always emphasize people over politics.

Hackney emerged as the choice of a highly contested race to be the speaker candidate of the Democratic caucus. For many folks there he was not their first choice, but he appears primed to treat all the voices of his caucus with due respect, regardless of where their loyalties initially stood in the speaker election. That is the mark of a noble leader.

It was also encouraging to hear him actually talk about issues during his speech! North Carolina still has a ways to go in terms of teacher pay, the environment and health care, among other items. It was good that Hackney addressed the importance of those issues in his maiden address -- it's even better that he has a record of hard work on them in the legislature.

I was glad to hear him talk about those issues of particular concern to the progressive community, but I was also glad to hear him talk about the need to maintain the state's strong fiscal health.

The knock against Hackney during the speaker race seemed to be that he would not be friendly to business interests. But he certainly knows the importance of maintaining a strong economy and I'm confident that he will be fair and accessible to all of the state's key interests, one of which is certainly maintaining profitable private enterprise.

I want to address a few faulty perceptions the statewide media spread about Hackney over the last few weeks. A common theme was that he had moved to the center over the past few years in order to move up the ladder of the House leadership.

I don't think Joe Hackney has sacrificed his principles to get ahead a bit. What I do think is that he does a good job of representing his constituents.

For most of his career, southern Orange County was the population center of Hackney's district. That meant that in acting on the priorities set out for him by his constituents, he was often pushing what might be considered "liberal" issues.

When multi-member districts were eliminated in 2002 though, he became the representative of a district overwhelmingly composed of the residents of Chatham County, with just a small handful of Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents still in his turf.

With that new constituency came a different set of priorities. When your average constituent is a Siler City farmer rather than a Carrboro peace activist, you have to change your priorities in Raleigh to continue to be an effective advocate for those who elect you. I don't think there's anything opportunistic about Hackney's behavior during the past few sessions -- he's just being a good representative for the folks in his district.

The other theme the press has pushed is that Hackney has a dour personality and is difficult to get along with. This is just a complete disconnect from what constituents of his I've spoken to have experienced as well as what I have experienced myself. He is giving of his time and always respectful and charming.

I think Chris Fitzsimon of North Carolina Policy Watch may have hit the nail on the head about this point when he recently wrote: "The people most often critical of Hackney's less than warm and fuzzy personality are the well-heeled lobbyists who are used to spending evenings with legislative leaders at Raleigh's finest restaurants."

We are blessed to have a speaker of the House who would rather come back at night and meet with his constituents than stay in Raleigh to have fancy dinners with lobbyists all the time.

You can stick whatever ideological label you want on Joe Hackney, but at the end of the day all that matters is that as speaker of the House he will be fair to his colleagues, treat all interests before the legislature with respect and govern with integrity. We couldn't ask for much more.

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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Monday, January 22, 2007

Tom Jensen named as 'one of seven who will matter in 2007'

Here's the original story where the Raleigh News and Observer named me one of their 'Seven who will matter in 2007.'

And here is the follow up:

Huffington Post
Sierra Club
Sally Greene
Paul Jones
Brian Russell

Thank you to everyone for their support.

Take care of roadkill and rabies

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, January 20th:

Orange County won the state championship in 2005, finished a close second behind Guilford County last year, and is already well on its way to another state championship this year.

I wish I was talking about football or SAT scores or something of that ilk. Unfortunately I'm talking about the county's relative standing in the number of rabies cases it has compared to the rest of the state.

It seems like every day when I open up the paper there's been another confirmed rabies case. Most of the time I don't bat much of an eye. The vast majority of the cases are way out in the county, and since I live near downtown Chapel Hill, don't affect me.

But I kind of reached my breaking point when one of 2007's first pair of cases was a rabid fox that attacked someone walking near UNC Hospitals. I walk around there all the time, and that could just as well have been me.

We also had a rabid beaver in Umstead Park last year, right across the street from where I live. He was running right after some folks picnicking in the park. One of them had the ingenuity to jump up on a table and beat the heck out of that thing with a stick. I'd like to hire that fast thinker as my bodyguard because there's no way I would have had the guts and wherewithal to do that. My sense is that few other people would either.

I want to preface by saying that it could well be the case that Orange County does a better job of reporting its rabies incidents to the state than other counties do, and that's a part of the reason for its frontrunner status.

Still, there's no reason I can see that we should have more cases than virtually anywhere else in the state, including counties that both cover a much larger area and are on balance much more rural.

I think it's time for the county commissioners to put some pressure on their staff to figure out why we have such a rabies problem, and what can be done about it.

I don't want to have to move with trepidation every time I see an animal acting weirdly when I'm walking around town.

We have outstanding folks working for the county, and I'm confident that if told to find a solution they will be able to come up with some steps toward resolving the problem. There's lots of thing that Orange County leads the state in, and almost all of them are good. By tackling the rabies problem I hope we can get rid of the bad one.

As long as we're on the topic of public health issues, I'd like to see Chapel Hill look at how it can do a better job of cleaning up roadkill.

One day in October I was on the phone with a Town Council member as I stepped in a dead squirrel right on the sidewalk on Cameron Avenue.

As grossed out as I was by the experience, it had long struck me as inevitable. There is a real problem with roadkill being allowed to sit on the sidewalk for days without being cleaned up. I suppose I could call and report every time I see it, but the onus should be more on the town than individual citizens to ensure that's being taken care of.

The most disgusting piece of fallout from this problem I've ever seen happened one day last summer when I saw a dead squirrel while walking downtown. I made a point of walking back home on the other side of the street -- and I was sure glad I did when I saw a raccoon eating it for dinner!

That's a site I could live without seeing ever again. Needless to say I didn't have much of a dinner that evening.

I'm sure folks are doing their jobs, but I'm equally sure that I've never been in any other community that seemed to have dead animals sprawled across the sidewalk with such frequency. There must be some room for improvement in how we dispose of roadkill, and I'd like to see it made. Chapel Hill's town government is outstanding at virtually everything it does, and this is one more thing to add to the list.

Roadkill and rabies. These are two of the problems that have been bothering me of late in an otherwise outstanding community. Let's hope our elected leaders and the great staffs they oversee can do something about them.