Shelter from the storm

The Red Cross thinks of everything. After UNC opened the Friday Center on Saturday to Hurricane Florence victims seeking shelter, the Red Cross swooped in, and with the practiced precision of a military operation, set up camp to welcome people who may have left home in a panic with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and maybe a cell phone.

Volunteers set up cots, each with a plastic-wrapped fluffy white blanket with the trademarked red cross, turning banquet halls into dormitories and break-out conference rooms into medical clinics. A truck pulled up with mobile outdoor showers, and another was on its way with handicap accessible shower stalls. Another truck had pet cages, because pets weren’t allowed indoors, and a veterinarian checked animals for injuries.

The Red Cross had arranged for meal preparation, pallets of bottled water and diapers, Swahili translators and sign language interpreters. Police provided security and a therapy dog, and despite guests arriving worried, exhausted and at the end of their ropes, the only thing that broke out were some chess games.

Within 24 hours, the Friday Center had registered and welcomed about 170 guests, and a caravan of buses with some 200 more folks was on its way Sunday afternoon. Hurricane Florence had moved on, but the crisis was far from over. Rivers had yet to crest, and people still were fleeing homes ahead of floodwaters.

At this point, no one knows how long shelter guests will stay. Understandably, they are anxious to go home, to make sure their home is still there and to assess the damage. Maybe in a few days they would appreciate access to the bookmobile or people to help fill out forms for insurance claims or FEMA aid. Right now, the Red Cross is focusing on basic needs, and one that has become apparent is a shortage of charging stations for cell phones and other wi-fi devices.

Chapel Hill is a compassionate and generous community, for the most part, but the Red Cross has asked that people not drop off anything at the Friday Center. Contact the Central North Carolina chapter of the Red Cross to find out how to be most helpful.

UNC, after opening up the Friday Center, went a step further. Its Athletics Department reached out to the Red Cross to find out when would be convenient for Rameses, a couple of star coaches and some scholarship athletes to visit and greet shelter guests.

Truly, the Red Cross thinks of everything.
— Nancy Oates

Taking a stand on Silent Sam

Chapel Hill has its own version of Colin Kaepernick in UNC Chancellor Carol Folt. Though instead of taking a knee, Folt took a stand — on whether Silent Sam should be allowed back on the pedestal in the university’s front yard.

Up to this point, I’d been disappointed that Folt had been so tentative in the controversy over a symbol of white supremacy. She seemed to be walking on eggshells so as not to cause indigestion among members of the General Assembly and UNC Board of Governors.

Confusion roiled around who had ultimate authority to decide whether Sam would stay or go. Gov. Roy Cooper said the chancellor could move the statue out of the public eye for safekeeping. The General Assembly said it was up to the state’s Historical Commission, but neither the BOG nor the UNC administration petitioned the commission to remove the monument.

The BOG says the governor has misinterpreted the law passed by the General Assembly in 2015 prohibiting the removal of objects of remembrance. Though the BOG has no say regarding the removal of the statue, it does have authority over the removal of the chancellor.

If Folt did not want to poke the bear by ordering the statue warehoused or at least brought inside but still on public display, she could have put up plaques around Silent Sam explaining its history and putting in context why it was put up to begin with. Instead, she bowed to the General Assembly’s view.

So Folt’s Aug. 31 letter to the community came as a welcome surprise. In the middle of explaining that the BOG had given her and UNC’s Board of Trustees a Nov. 15 deadline to deliver a plan for Silent Sam came this sentence:

“Silent Sam has a place in our history and on our campus where its history can be taught, but not at the front door of a safe, welcoming, proudly public research university.”

If she sticks adamantly to a plan that does not return the statue to its pedestal on McCorkle Place, she might find herself toppled by the BOG.

I applaud her strong stance that puts her professional well-being secondary to the humanitarian values shared by the majority at UNC and townwide. She has popular support for her position, which may or may not give her comfort should she find herself in the unemployment line.

Folt has earned my respect. It is very hard to hold firm to a stand when you’ve got a lot at stake. At the same time, it’s hard to shake up others’ lives without shaking up your own. But if we want real change in these highly charged, unyielding times, we have to take as much risk as we can bear.

Thank you, Chancellor Folt, for showing true leadership.
— Nancy Oates

Where we go from here

Silent Sam made sure that town manager Roger Stancil did not go gentle into that good night. Stancil wrapped up his more than 12 years in Chapel Hill town staff’s top post on Saturday and was working nigh until midnight on his to-do list. The many hours of meetings to coordinate with UNC Police and strategize public safety necessitated by protests after activists yanked the statue down on campus slowed his progress a bit. But not much.

(And how fortuitous that Stancil’s successor, Maurice Jones, with his hard-earned experience in Charlottesville last year, clocked in the very day the troubles started and could share his counsel from the get-go.)

After Stancil announced his retirement last year, council came up with a list of priorities — 27 of them, along the lines of “Fix the downtown parking shortage,” and “Get the LUMO rewrite and new future land use maps going,” and “Draft a development agreement for the Municipal Services Center.” Darned if he didn’t make significant progress on almost all of them.

Council met with Jones last week in closed session to talk about priorities moving forward. I expect it may take a little while before he is sufficiently comfortable to push back and give us guidance. Put I hope he won’t take too long. We need help.

Yes, I know, council is the town manager’s boss. But none of us on the dais knows city planning. Unless staff tell us, we don’t know when we’re making a decision we’ll regret later.

My sense is that Jones and Stancil have quite different styles, just as Stancil and his predecessor, Cal Horton, did. I didn’t have any dealings with Horton directly, but from what I’ve heard, he ran the show. Some community members say Stancil did, too, but I think he just knew how to count to five.

When I think back on the most objectionable initiatives in the past decade, they can only be blamed on council — the lack of affordable housing in Ephesus-Fordham, Carraway Village and any other new construction approved; the Blue Hill form-based code that did away with requirements for trees and allowed building in the Resource Conservation District; the luxury high-rises blanketing every buildable parcel. Those came about because each project had at least five council members voting for it.

I stopped by Charlottesville over the summer and wandered around its downtown area for a couple hours. (Try that in Chapel Hill. Strolling campus doesn’t count.) There was quite a bit to see: a pedestrian mall, heavily weighted toward independent businesses, not all of them restaurants; historic buildings, though almost all housed businesses; a school repurposed into artists’ studios open to the public; transitional housing apartments; a really good chocolate shop; and townfolk welcoming to a sweaty stranger.

And the diversity of people — to the point that I grew suspicious Jones had called ahead to make sure there would be an interesting mix.

Stancil led us through some rocky times, including the recession, and kept us on a path of fiscal stability. Now Jones takes the reins. I’m looking forward to seeing what paths we choose with his guidance.
— Nancy Oates

What Does Democracy Look Like?

Talk about a baptism by fire: His first day on the job, town manager Maurice Jones had to deal with a “spontaneous” rally by activists that ended with the toppling of Silent Sam, making national news.

The statue’s demise happened close to the one-year anniversary of the deadly protest in Charlottesville, where Jones had been the town manager at the time. His heart must have sunk last week when, after what should have been the end of a day of meeting new colleagues and filling out HR forms, he learned of crowds gathering on Franklin Street and milling about ominously.

We are lucky to have had a battle-tested veteran at the table to give counsel on “Here’s what we didn’t anticipate last year in Charlottesville,” and “Here’s what we could have done differently.”

The warrants issued for the statue’s vandals last Monday night and arrests made during the protest this past Saturday are for people not connected to the university. To the extent students or faculty were involved, they apparently expressed themselves civilly and nonviolently.

Not so with some of our guests a week ago and this past Saturday. After the statue fell, some shouted, “This is what democracy looks like!”

But it’s not. It’s what anarchy looks like.

The statue should have been moved long ago. Fifty years ago, students were tossing red ink mixed, they claimed, with blood on Silent Sam. And the administration had ignored them. So I understand their frustration. The process was too slow by decades.

A few years ago, when the state legislature passed a law prohibiting the removal of monuments commemorating North Carolina’s military history, UNC could have installed a plaque next to the statue educating viewers on the Confederates going to war to preserve slavery, the installation of statues throughout the South at a time when white supremacists wanted to assert themselves, and Julian Carr’s dedication speech taking pride in whipping a black woman. Yet the administration dismissed even that mitigating step.

After the statue tumbled, the UNC Board of Governors railed against mob rule, ironic, given its shades of Mob rule: the firing of UNC System President Tom Ross; the cap on money toward scholarships; the startling pay hikes to top administrators while those at the low end of the pay scale got a garden for free produce they can’t afford to buy.

But felling the statue doesn’t set us on a path toward righting all the wrongs that need to be fixed. It only offers evidence to the ultra-conservatives and the white supremacists who think liberals are lawless.

The way to get the statue to come down is to vote out those who want to protect symbols of racism. That is what democracy looks like.

When we elect people who have a commitment to justice, who feel compassion for all, who love their neighbors more than power and status, then we won’t have to always be ready to fight. We can build a town that enables our diverse residents to thrive. And our new town manager can spend his first day on the job learning how to work the coffee machine.
— Nancy Oates

ID’ing the Enemy

Faithful readers may have noticed that Chapel Hill Watch did not appear among the list of 350 news outlets that ran an editorial rejecting Donald Trump’s dissing of the media. No political agenda here. I totally agree with the editorial published by The Boston Globe. I simply went on vacation last week, a real vacation where I didn’t follow any national news whatsoever. I can’t remember the last time I experienced such serenity.

Ever since he first ran for office, Trump has been calling news media “the enemy of the people,” that is, unless the reporting portrayed him in a positive light. The Globe got tired of such hogwash and pointed out that “[t]he press is necessary to a free society because it does not implicitly trust leaders — from the local planning board to the White House.”

Read the editorial here.

As Twitter, Facebook and other social media have let individuals create their own news, we rely on large, established news outlets elsewhere to invest resources in reporting, fact-checking and analyzing so that we have a realistic picture of what’s happening in our world.

And if the truth punctures someone’s idealized view of themselves, brace for the backlash.

Thomas Jefferson said: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

I’m grateful for the journalists willing to not only put their lives on the line to help us see the world as it really exists but to persevere through the angry taunts from those with injured egos.

When I returned from my vacation, peaceful as it was, I thirsted for news of what I had missed. While I didn’t necessarily like what I read upon my return, I felt a part of the rest of the world.

Chapel Hill’s only newspaper closed up shop last year, and the Durham Herald-Sun has done a yeoman’s job of keeping on top of issues of concern to the community. Yet I miss knowing who got married, gave birth, died, got arrested, bought or sold a home; what businesses opened or closed, which movies were playing and artists displaying, and what produce was in season at the farmers market. Those details connect us as a community.

But even more important is knowing about actions of elected leaders that impact our quality of life. News media disseminate facts that help them make better decisions, that information helps the public recognize a bad decision and know when to speak up.
— Nancy Oates

One State Away

I took four flights last month, and from my vantage point of Zone 4 in the gate area, I watched all the high-mileage passengers board first. They were the dealmakers flown by their companies to move business forward and generate revenue. On all four flights, those in the privileged first-to-board line were almost exclusively white males.

In one of those moments of insight that prompted Warren Buffet to invest in Walmart when he noticed the full parking lots, I despaired that I might not see a woman elected president in my lifetime. It seems like when it comes to making decisions about money or quality of life, we’re still more willing to entrust only men with that power.

I remember in my youth the countdown of states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would codify that women would have all the rights guaranteed to men. The ERA, introduced to Congress in 1972, needed 38 of 50 states to ratify it within 10 years before it could be added to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratification stalled at 35 states. North Carolina is among the states that did not ratify the ERA. Then last year Nevada became the 36th state to ratify, and last spring, Illinois became the 37th.
North Carolina could make history. On Valentine’s Day last year, an ERA ratification bill was introduced into the N.C. House and Senate. And then … nothing.

Earlier this month, I went to a political fundraiser for many of the women running for office in the state House and Senate and Supreme Court. I was heartened to see not only so many newcomers to politics who had achieved success in other fields, but also to hear from the battle-tested, pragmatic incumbents who would mentor them.

Over the course of the evening, I heard many references to women being able to get things done. From my own experience and observations, I believe that to be true. But we need to pay attention not only to what we get done but how we do it, if we want to be taken seriously.

We, as women who enter politics and any other profession for that matter, must leave sorority house behavior behind, move beyond middle-school-girl dynamics and concentrate on removing the obstacles that prevent everyone in our community from thriving. If we spend any energy at all on derailing one another’s success, we aren’t doing our job.

My hope is that if the ERA became a part of the Constitution, signaling that as a nation we value women’s contributions as much as men’s, that we women will live into our leadership potential. North Carolina is in a position to level the playing field, so maybe someday in the not too distant future, a woman could be elected president — or at least have a place in the Business Class line.
— Nancy Oates

The Bail Trap

Some 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense, according to a federal survey conducted earlier this year. If they don’t have access to credit, they’d have to borrow from family or friends. If they have tapped out those resources, then bills go unpaid, utilities get shut off. Sometimes that $400 bill starts a financial downward spiral that ends in eviction.

The documentary The Bail Trap: American Ransom, shown at the library last week in a program hosted jointly by the town’s Justice in Action Committee and the NAACP of Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Northern Orange County, gave us a glimpse into the lives of people who had to come up with bail unexpectedly and the lasting financial impact that expense had on their lives.

Bear in mind that anyone can get arrested for anything, including fitting the description of a suspect.

When you are arrested, you stay in jail until you are arraigned, at which time the magistrate does one of the following: 1) releases you on your own recognizance (you promise to return for your court date, and your word is good enough); 2) releases you to the custody of someone else (their word is good enough); 3) sets bail (you’ve got to back your word with significant money); or 4) holds you in jail without bail (no amount of money is sufficient to believe you will return).

Bail might be anywhere from $1,000 to $1 million or more, depending on, among other things, the severity of the crime and your risk of flight. If you have cash for the entire amount, you pay it to the court and, after all your court dates are done, you get it back in full, regardless of whether you are found guilty or acquitted. All you’ve lost is the cash’s earning power.

If you don’t have the full amount, you can use a bail bondsman who will charge 10% of the bail; even if you show up for all of your court dates, he keeps the money. If you skip out, whoever signed your bail bond contract is on the hook for the entire amount of the bail.

You can choose to stay in jail, but as court dates are scheduled weeks or months away, likely you would lose your job, and unless you had someone to pay your rent or mortgage, you might well lose your housing.

Following the film, a retired judge, a defense attorney, a county commissioner and a formerly incarcerated man discussed bail aspects specific to Orange County, where the policy is to use bail sparingly. But judges, who are elected, tend to err on the side of keeping suspects in custody lest they appear soft on crime or someone they release commits a heinous act while awaiting a court date. Yet states that have moved away from bail find that as many people return for their court dates as those in states that overuse bail.

Given the punitive impact of bail on low-wealth residents, I’d like to see judges shift away from imposing bail for people with strong ties to the community and a lack of prior record.
— Nancy Oates

Affordable Leaves the Station

American philosopher Eric Hoffer would have celebrated his 120th birthday last week, had he not died just shy of 85. Among his memorable insights, he noted: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

His intuition came to mind as I read one sentence tucked neatly into a letter from Durham Area Designers to GoTriangle suggesting improvements to the station design.

“Faced with an appealing and comfortable station, ‘choice’ travelers are not only willing to take transit, but also to pay a higher fare and tolerate longer wait times.” (Choice travelers are those who have other options for getting where they want to go, as opposed to those who don’t have access to other forms of transportation.)

The letter rightly pointed out that the platform shelter pictured in the conceptual designs presented to the public weren’t practical. The drawings featured a gull wing concept — the outer edge of the roof higher than the inner edge, with the two roof panels forming a vee-shape. Shade would be minimal, and the slightest breeze would blow rain onto the people standing on the platform. Any water landing on the roof would pool in the vee, eventually corroding the panels and leaking onto the platform. We learned that lesson with the roofline of Chapel Hill Police Headquarters.

I have no quibble with the Durham design group’s contention that an aesthetically pleasing station will draw riders who wouldn’t take the more plebian bus.

Because isn’t that what won over the majority of county commissioners who voted for light rail despite the staggering debt it would inflict on taxpayers — the hope that light rail would bring economic development and concomitant tax revenue to the county? We can’t get that kind of revenue boost if we intend to attract low-wealth residents and riders.

An uncrowded train gliding into a clean, elegant station would appeal to the upscale residents we hope to entice to Chapel Hill and Durham who will pay taxes on high-end housing and have plenty of discretionary income leftover to spend on pricey restaurants and theater tickets. Chapel Hill and Durham then would have more money to invest in infrastructure and amenities that we wouldn’t be able to afford if tax dollars were less free-flowing.

All of us knew that all along. And yet among the selling points some elected officials touted were affordable transit for the working class and affordable housing near train stations. Neither of which will come to pass, and now that the light rail seems to have picked up momentum, everyone has quietly dropped those talking points.

Which brings me back to Hoffer’s wisdom. When the light-rail movement became too expensive, it morphed into a sales and marketing business. The lack of transparency turned it into a racket.
— Nancy Oates

Quintessential Chapel Hill Fan

When friends and I would go to baseball games at Yankee Stadium, we always scanned the crowd for nominees to our Quintessential Yankee Fan Hall of Fame. Yankee fans were quite different from Mets fans, I noticed on my very rare trips to Shea Stadium.

Perusing crowds became a habit, and when I’m out and about in Chapel Hill, I look for people who seem to absolutely personify the event. And just as there was little overlap between the fans at Yankee Stadium and those at Shea, there is a disheartening difference between the people who come to Town Hall to speak a council meeting and those I see anywhere else.

The vast majority of presentations we see at council are development proposals. The developers, architects, engineers, business owners, financial experts and the occasional lawyer are almost without exception male, and almost always white.

The community members who speak at meetings are fairly evenly divided between men and women; most are white and own their own homes, which implies a certain financial stability. The majority seem to be 40-ish and older.

It can leave us with the impression that this is who comprises Chapel Hill, that this is whose best interests we have at heart when we make decisions.

But when I go to the movies on the Wallace Deck, or the fireworks at Kenan Stadium, I see younger demographics and a range of skin hues. Unwrinkled men and women with babies and toddlers and schoolkids; couples barely in their 20s; a gaggle of teens. When I sit at an outdoor table in front of Med Deli on a Friday night and watch the pedestrians filing past, I see people of all ages, physical abilities and style of dress. I see couples of same gender and different gender. I hear different languages.

We may not see the vast majority of these folks at Town Hall or even at the voting booth. (Typically, only about 15% of residents vote in local elections,)

But these are the people who will be stuck in traffic when we approve a high-density development without figuring out how to handle the extra cars. These are the folks who will wait longer for buses or have to take Uber on weekends, if we don’t adequately fund our transit system. They’ll cross county lines to shop, if we make it too hard for retailers to set up shop here. They will leave town every morning to go to work, if we don’t attract enough businesses, or they’ll move to towns nearby where housing costs are lower because Chapel Hill’s council has approved only high-end rentals.

This is a world that goes beyond the people who come to council meetings and measure tax hikes by number of lattes per week.

There is no quintessential Chapel Hillian, nor even a melting pot. Town residents represent a wide spectrum of uniquenesses. We, on council, must make decisions that enable people in each of those different life circumstances to thrive.
— Nancy Oates

ICE on Ice?

An email circulated recently asking elected officials to sign a letter in support of abolishing ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. I read it and sighed. Once again, pressure is on us to perform some gesture that maybe looks like we are doing something for a righteous cause but in reality would do more harm than good.

Since 1890, the U.S. government has regulated immigration. Originally, the department was under the auspices of the Treasury Department before being shunted to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. When that department bifurcated a decade later, immigration became part of the Department of Labor. In the 1930s, the functions were important enough to garner their own agency name — Immigration and Naturalization Services — and in 1940, the Department of Justice took INS under its wing.

After the Sept. 11 terrorists’ attack in 2001, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, which took on the oversight of INS. A couple more name changes followed: First it was redubbed the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, then the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which still exists. But the feds separated out various functions to start the Customs and Border Protection and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

USCIS adjudicates immigration and naturalization issues; CBP prevents terrorists and weapons from entering the country; ICE monitors infrastructure security. Each agency is required to execute the laws established by Congress and the policies set by the presiding presidential administration.

We all have been shocked and repulsed by the inhumane Trump administration policies of separating children from their parents and locking them in cages. Clearly, that must end NOW! Abolishing ICE won’t stop those practices. The functions covered by ICE would be taken over by USICS or other federal agents. The change must start at the top — ideally, swapping out the current president for someone more qualified, or anybody with a heart and a brain; or getting Congress to change the laws to meet the demand the U.S. has for hardworking immigrants to do the work U.S. citizens won’t do.

The combination of people fleeing gang violence and poverty in their country of origin, and the availability of manual labor jobs in the U.S. motivates immigrants to take the risk of coming to the U.S. without legal documentation.

The economic demand for immigrants is here, even in Chapel Hill, where residents hire them to clean houses, manicure lawns, care for children, cook and clean at restaurants, and dig trenches to lay cable.

Let’s channel our anger to where it can do the most good: Contact our representatives in Congress and urge them to have the courage to stand up to the bully in the White House and the big-money political donors who want to keep America white.

Signing a letter is easy; nagging for change is more effective.
— Nancy Oates