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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