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

Do We Want Diversity?

In an effort to improve our chances of recouping through tax revenue the $10 million taxpayers invested in infrastructure in the area now known as Blue Hill, Town Council members considered options for increasing the amount of commercial space in the district. At our June 27 council meeting, we talked about changing the form-based code to require some or all of any redevelopment to be office, hotel or retail.

During the discussion, a community member expressed concern that demand for office and retail stores may be declining and that requiring a certain amount of square footage as commercial would result in chronically vacant storefronts.

Hongbin Gu countered that her research, which included phone calls to the Charlotte Urban Institute and the National Retail Federation, showed retail to be doing just fine.

Her intel agrees with the information I hear from business analysts who explain that the retail is going through a transformation to make the most of online technology. The retail pie is getting bigger, they say. More online sales does not mean less in-store sales. Shopping is still entertainment and a tourism draw. Retail stores often boost online sales and build consumer confidence in a brand.

I’m going into some detail on this not to say that Hongbin and I are right and everyone else on council is wrong. My point is that in that discussion, Hongbin and I knew things that others on council did not.

That applies to any issue that comes before council. Each of us on the dais has information, expertise and experiences that shape our individual viewpoints and, ultimately, the way we vote. We make better decisions as a council if we open ourselves to learn from one another rather than having “our side” “win.”

We have such diversity on council that our official group photo could double as a Benetton ad. But does that diversity do any good if we don’t open ourselves to one another’s different ideas and ways of thinking?

The changes to form-based code we approved last month are worthy of clipping out and posting on our refrigerators as a continual reminder of what we end up with when we ignore our diversity. We could have done better for the community as a whole had we been willing to learn from one another.
— Nancy Oates

2018 Season Finale

As the bad news piled up — cruelty and crassness at the national level and callousness from state legislators — a friend commented: “I no longer feel proud to be an American.”

I know the feeling. At last Wednesday’s Town Council meeting — our last of the season — we treated the public to 5 ½ hours of cringe-worthy politics. I was disheartened to realize that I was now part of a council that Chapel Hill Watch would have had a field day with back in the day.

We began by voting to invest more than $34 million in a new police station on University-owned land without asking for any guarantee that we could rent the land for more than 30 years or building in remuneration of our investment should UNC choose not to extend our lease.

We ended the night with a majority of council members engaging in a whisper campaign to besmirch the reputation of an applicant to one of the advisory boards.

In the middle, we had the horse-trading around proposed changes to the Form-Based Code in what’s now known as Blue Hill. Ultimately, a majority passed a convoluted version that would not result in anything other than the typical ground-floor retail with apartments above that we see all over town, but was onerous enough that property owners felt it would hamper their options for redevelopment.

Clearly, the FBC needs amending. When it was proposed in 2014, town staff came up with a mix of office, retail, hotel and residential space that would generate enough revenue over 20 years to repay the $10 million we borrowed for stormwater and road improvements to handle the extra density.

But because the FBC does not include any contribution to affordable housing, the area became a magnet for luxury apartments. All but a couple of the parcels have been redeveloped into upscale rentals — nearly 2,000 units have been built or approved, and another property owner has a potential buyer to convert retail space into residential. We aren’t going to be able to hit our target returns if all of the acreage is developed as residential.

All of the parcels that have not yet been redeveloped have some sort of commercial enterprise on them at present. I supported a code amendment that would ensure they remain 100% commercial. Previously, staff singled out only two property owners to abide by that constraint who, naturally, felt picked on.

The complex proposal staff brought to us shortly before the meeting last week offered a list of options, including density bonuses and square footage swaps, and recommended that any changes apply to all parcels. But it did not seem to mandate enough commercial space to make a difference. Competition among council factions ensued, resulting in a suboptimal outcome.

During our summer break, I hope we will reflect on why we ran — presumably to shape Chapel Hill into a place where people of a wide range of demographics can thrive. I hope we will return at the end of August with renewed resolve to act in ways that enable us to feel proud to admit we are on council.
— Nancy Oates

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Is all affordable housing good? Is it morally defensible to put affordable housing somewhere that you wouldn’t put other housing?

These questions came to mind last Wednesday during a Chapel Hill Town Council meeting at which representatives of the town’s Office for Housing and Community proposed putting affordable housing on three parcels of town-owned land — 7.3 acres off Bennett Road, 24.5 acres off Dogwood Acres Drive near Southern Village and 7.3 acres near Jay Street on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro town line.

The properties were scrutinized and endorsed pursuant to locating destinations for the soon-to-be-displaced residents of Lakeview mobile home park.

What struck me was that staff tagged the parcel of land off Jay Street as a suitable affordable housing option. But anyone who has visited the parcel might think otherwise. A steep ravine dominates more than half of the acreage — so steep that it cannot be built upon, according to town statutes. A section of the land looks as if it was used as a construction dump site, so some environmental testing of the land is in order.

One border of the Jay Street property is a cemetery. Another side abuts the Northside neighborhood, a historically black section of town. And another side runs along the railroad tracks at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro town limits. Those railroad tracks are still used to transport coal to the UNC power plants near Merritt Mill Road and audibly transits the line two or three times a day.

According to documents released by the OHC, the properties were screened for “absolute constraints to development, including: regulatory floodplain, state and local stream buffers, utility easements, parcels managed for conservation purposes, and properties with ongoing or planned development.” But it sure looks like no one involved in the decision-making took the time to walk the Jay Street site and get an idea about the lay of the land before endorsing it as suitable for affordable housing.

I would wager that the Town Housing Advisory Board members who recommended the land for affordable housing also didn’t explore the parcel. Only about 3 to 4 acres seem developable. Town staff reached out to residents of manufactured homes and learned that they preferred single-family houses. Apartments ranked lowest on their preference list.

One criterion the OHC might want to add to its rating scale: Would a market-rate developer be interested in the parcel? For the past 15 years or so, long before the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance was approved, councils have indicated a strong desire for subsidized housing to be mixed in with market-rate homes to form a cohesive neighborhood. Everyone benefits. Low-wealth people would live in a neighborhood they are proud to call home and would not be stigmatized on job applications for a particular street address. High-wealth people would expand their social circles and get to know, as friends, the people whose work keeps the town functioning. For years, councils have believed that the people we welcome into our lives to tend our yards, clean our homes and serve us at restaurants are also welcome as neighbors.

Treat low-wealth residents with respect. Select land and housing options that would appeal to people across the wealth spectrum. That speaks well of our town’s moral compass.

— Don Evans

Onward and upward together

Instead of going to the library for our next Town Council retreat, perhaps we could go to Africa and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together.

Business leaders talk about the benefits mountain climbing can have for team building; mountain climbers talk about the necessity of having a strong-functioning team before you set off up the trail. One climber and business expert described the group dynamic of a mountain-climbing expedition thusly: “You’re coming together with people you don’t know in a high-risk environment. You want to achieve this extraordinary thing, and you have to work together to do it.”

If that doesn’t describe Town Council working to select a new town manager, I don’t know what does.

Team building is very different from “liking” one another. The team’s goal is to find the best resolution to a problem. Effective teams are able to work together to come up with and evaluate solutions regardless of what their BFF thinks or whether they ultimately side with “the opposition.”

In mountain climbing, and town counciling, you have to rely on your teammates for your group to be successful. It requires a balance of leadership and teamwork. Many of us on council like to think of ourselves as leaders, but council will fail if we don’t also learn to become good teammates.

Mountain climbers I know say you have to climb three times to get all the way to the summit. Your body has to get acclimatized to the thin air and produce more red blood cells to compensate for the lower oxygen at greater heights. First, you go part way up and back to basecamp, then farther up on the second trip, and finally all the way to the top on the third time.

That is not meant to be an analogy for selecting a new town manager. (We’ve narrowed the field to three outstanding candidates.) Our goal is to be able to make an announcement at our last council meeting, on June 27. We’re near enough to the summit that I think we’ll make it.

Although that mountain will be behind us by the time we plan our next retreat, more challenges lay ahead. Working with a new manager, we hope to make some changes in the way we do things, such as finding a way to shorten our lengthy weekly meetings. And realistically, we have to brace for some staff changes as people who may have turned down other opportunities in order to continue working with our current manager look at what else is out there.

There’s no question change involves angst and readjustment. An entire field called “change management” has sprung up because, universally, change is hard.

Climbers say if you keep climbing, the mountains get bigger. The need for strong-functioning teams becomes more imperative. And the views and the accomplishments get better and better.
— Nancy Oates

How Generous Can We Afford to Be?

Richard Jenrette snagged his dream job right out of college — sportswriter for the N&O. A few years into it, though, he looked around and noticed that newspaper people didn’t make much money. He enrolled in Harvard Business School to learn a more lucrative trade.

Jenrette, the “J” in the enormously successful brokerage firm DLJ (Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette), figured out early on in his career that making lots of money mattered to him. Many people share that value. Few of them work for municipal governments.

Yet Town Council members who lobbied for the manager’s proposed 3% pay raise across all salary levels based their view on the notion that employees on the upper end of the pay scale would feel “disrespected” if they got a smaller percentage pay raise than those at the lower end. Those council members did not share any data to back their contention.

In a year in which the town manager proposed a 3-cent tax hike and council whittled it down to 2 cents by kicking the can down the road, a 3% salary increase for town executives seemed generous to a fault. Some council members thought a 2% increase would be a better fit in a tight budget year. But that would be a very small increase to those in the lower half of the pay scale. Last year, the median salary for the town’s 700-plus employees was in the $30,000s.

Because an even percentage pay hike across the board widens the wealth gap, I once again lobbied for a split percentage pay raise. Once again, a majority on council trots out the notion that people at the top would feel disgruntled if they got a lower percent raise than their more modestly paid colleagues.

We need to stop worrying about feelings and look at the economics. To keep our town running smoothly, we must show more respect to the modestly paid. Because we don’t have housing in town that lower-paid employees can afford, bus drivers, groundskeepers and clerical workers must commute in. As towns around us grow, they have other options for work.

As it is, we are having trouble recruiting and retaining bus drivers. Police officers and firefighters drive through multiple jurisdictions on their way to work in Chapel Hill. A 3% pay raise for those making at or below the Area Median Income (about $56,000) and a 2% increase for those earning more than the AMI would help retain those we have the hardest time attracting while still rewarding department heads who make two to four times the AMI.

Those below the AMI likely would spend their raise, pumping money back into the local economy. Those above the AMI would be more apt to save it.

We expect some turnover in the top ranks due to the longtime town manager retiring. I doubt a single bus driver will quit because a new town manager is coming in.

The time for haggling is past. We will vote on the budget Wednesday. Maybe we could include a note in the digital paychecks of the highest-paid employees to donate 1% of their pay raise (the differential between 3% and 2%) to a nonprofit. Or at the very least, treat a lower-paid colleague to lunch.
— Nancy Oates