Sunday, September 24, 2006

New Carrboro leaders: So far, so good

Carrboro saw some pretty major changes in its political leadership in the aftermath of last fall's election.

For the first time in 10 years its mayor is not Mike Nelson, as he chose not to run for re-election and was replaced by two-year Alderman Mark Chilton. Another veteran of the Board of Aldermen, Diana McDuffee, also retired after a decade of distinguished service to the town. Longtime Carrboro activist and popular teacher Randee Haven-O'Donnell was elected to take her place.

Most prominently, Chilton's ascension during the middle of the four-year term he was elected to in 2003 led to the need to fill his vacated seat. There was no clear procedure for doing so and after nearly three months of controversy, long-time local activist Dan Coleman was appointed by a divided board.

We're now nine months into Chilton's first term, and the full Board of Aldermen has now been seated for more than seven months. So how are the new guys doing?

Pretty well, in my opinion. None of them have shown any reticence about taking on large amounts of responsibility from the outset in their new positions. For instance, the trio all serve on UNC's Leadership Advisory Committee dealing with Carolina North. Coleman and Chilton, in particular, bring years of experience with this issue to the table. Their presence has made the voices of Carrboro's representatives a key contributor to the dialogue, something which can only benefit the town's residents further down the line.

Another issue the trio has been actively involved with, as has fifth-term Alderman Jacquie Gist, is the ongoing controversy over the use of the lawn at Weaver Street Market. They have come in for criticism in some circles for overstepping their boundaries as aldermen. I think it would be an outrage if they didn't speak out about an issue in town that they are passionate about. They share the outrage of many of their constituents, and one of the benefits of being an elected official is an opportunity to speak out about the issues that concern you.

It's not like the Carrboro officials are just lobbing hand grenades at the mall's management either. While making their positions clear, Chilton and Coleman, in particular, have worked in a conciliatory fashion with Nathan Milian, Ruffin Slater and other people deeply involved in the situation. The chances of an ultimate solution that pleases the largest number of people possible have been greatly increased by the steady leadership Carrboro's public officials have exhibited.

There have been many other successes so far this year. For instance, a new online system to help residents easily get information they need from the government has been implemented. The town has also successfully completed a rezoning around the cement plant that will allow for mixed-use development, including affordable housing.

Mayor Chilton had large shoes to fill -- although the opposition to Mike Nelson was sometimes loud, he always won re-election with a significant percentage of the vote, a sign of overall popularity with the electorate.

It should hardly come as a surprise to most followers of local politics, however, that Chilton has had such a strong start to his tenure as mayor. During his time as an elected official both in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, he has always been a strong and effective leader with an ability to get things done. That he has been able to do so without ever betraying his progressive values is a tribute to him.

Similarly, it is unlikely that anyone is surprised at the contributions Alderman Haven-O'Donnell has made to the board. She had a long history of effectiveness in various volunteer roles both in Carrboro town government and in the broader community before her election, and most people who know her would agree she is one of the kindest people you could ever meet.

Dan Coleman, prior to his appointment, was a bigger question mark. Over the years Coleman -- with whom I served on the Sierra Club Political Committee -- has developed a reputation as being a pretty intense person when it comes to politics and there was some wonder about how he would fit in as a member of a seven-person board.

There are a lot fewer people expressing doubts now than there were eight months ago. He has shown himself to be a strong team player. His encyclopedic knowledge of recent local history gives him a special perspective in every aspect of his role as an alderman. That intelligence and intuition is also an asset to the board in that he has a special sense of what sorts of policies have worked and failed in the past and how that intersects with current policymaking.

There are certainly people unhappy with Carrboro town government, as there will be with any governmental body. But all in all, the new faces in Carrboro's leadership are doing a stand-up job thus far.

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. Caption:



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