We live in a town that spent more on fixing up a skate park than on repairing our history museum to keep it open. Remember that, the next time a council member cites the image of Chapel Hill as a reason for voting one way or another on a matter.
I’m harping on the museum issue because the way it unfolded is a microcosm of how decisions about our town are made. We can debate all we want to about the location and density of growth, the benefits and risks of increased debt, and whether green building actually saves energy. But if the majority of town council members base their vote on anything other than fact-based, well-reasoned decision-making, and the town staff continues to railroad projects through without public input, we won’t have a town that reflects the values of its residents.
During a long debate over how much to fund the museum at the council’s June 2 budget meeting, Penny Rich took offense to museum director Traci Davenport’s “attitude” toward Sally Greene’s suggestion at a May meeting that the museum partner with another ailing nonprofit as a way to strengthen the museum’s books. Greene defended Davenport’s response, but when it came time to vote, Rich was the sole naysayer of giving the museum $20,250 for the year, an amount far less than a recent consent agenda item that approved giving $25,000 to a consultant for two months of advice on the Glen Lennox Neighborhood Conservation District plan. Earlier in the debate, Greene responded to Mark Kleinschmidt’s suggestion of $35,000 for the museum with, “Wow. My head is spinning.” Would that it had spun at the $14.6 million she voted to borrow to add a coffee shop and gift shop to the library.
At last Monday’s meeting, town manager Roger Stancil presented what appeared to be a done deal of new tenants for the building and requested $95,000 for repairs. Matt Czajkowski, Jim Ward and Gene Pease asked for more discussion on what to do with the building once the museum moves out. Kleinschmidt shot down the suggestion, saying that no one could make plans during the upcoming holiday season, a comment that had some council members exchanging puzzled looks.
Czajkowski also questioned why, after the council couldn’t come up with the extra $14,000 the museum needed to stay open, it was now being asked to approve $95,000. He suggested covering the building’s expenses for three months ($15,000), long enough to bring the public into the discussion of the best use of the building. Kleinschmidt snapped back that funding only to “keep the lights on” was “irresponsible.”
Czajkowski, who takes his role of steward of public funds seriously, later said, “What is truly irresponsible is that we let the museum close for lack of an additional $15,000 commitment – and now we have to pay out an extra $70,000 or so while we figure out the highest and best use of the facility.”
Stancil’s plan may ultimately be the best use of a run-down building that would cost $500,000 to $1 million to be brought up to code if a new tenant isn’t put in place immediately and can’t be torn down because it has a preservation covenant on it. But that information should have come from the town manager or council, not uncovered by bloggers. And the new tenants’ leases should be drawn on a month-to-month basis while the public gives its input on how to use this town treasure.
– Nancy Oates