Sunday, August 20, 2006

A return to council in new era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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