Limits on listening

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss those all-nighter council meetings.

Town Council had a rich agenda for its Oct. 21 public hearing – a discussion of whether to add large swaths of land north of Chapel Hill, which included the Historic Rogers Road neighborhood, to the ETJ; Central West’s controversial proposal; and a first-ever density bonus to Timber Hollow – and many people in town had a lot to say.

Central West drew the most speakers by far, and it held the middle spot between the ETJ annexation and Timber Hollow. Council had the chance to try out its new rule: If more than 15 people sign up to speak, the time limit per speaker is reduced from 3 minutes to 2. Unfortunately, that was not communicated to the public, who thought that the first 15 speakers would get 3 minutes each, and those that followed would get 2 minutes. The blanket 2-minute limit wasn’t clarified until after the first speaker got cut off midsentence, which got the public comment period off on the wrong foot.

Tensions were running high already because town staff shunted all but the first 100 citizens into an overflow room, even though the posted capacity for the main meeting room was 185. Roger Stancil later said that due to the way the chairs were set up for the council meeting, the fire marshal scaled back the occupancy to 109.

The Central West matter finished up about 10:20, and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt plowed ahead with the Timber Hollow matter, even though council would have to adjourn promptly at 11:15 because an alarm goes off in the Southern Human Services building if the doors aren’t locked by midnight.

By the time the staff and the developer had made their presentations and citizens had commented, council members had time to ask only two questions before the mayor gaveled the meeting to a close. Discussion will resume a month later, at the Nov. 18 public hearing. But as every pitcher caught in a rain delay will tell you, a break in the action quashes momentum. Several council members had raised their hand to speak. Will they still feel the urgency to get their questions answered a month after the presentations and public comments?

With the items on last week’s agenda, council has some serious decisions to make. Limiting the comments the public contributes reduces the amount of information the council has as it considers these important issues. And separating council discussion from the presentations and public comment likely will temper the probing questions council had begun to ask.

That’s what makes me long for the good ol’ days.
– Nancy Oates

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49 Comments

  1. Don Evans

     /  October 28, 2013

    The question to the council becomes: Does the council serve at the convenience of town residents or does it serve at its own convenience? When council cuts into the already-short amount of time it allows residents to comment on issues they find important or that directly affect their lives, it implies that its time is more important than the time of the people it is supposed to represent and who are most directly affected by an issue.

    Council members are not sitting in the chairs on the dais because they were drafted or came unwilling to to serve — they are there because they chose to be there. They should accept the responsibility that they have sought and play by the rules of a democratic society, which include listening fully to the petitions of the populace. If the meetings take a little longer, then it is up to council to serve a little longer, not curtail freedom of speech rights.

    Right now, it seems council members serve at the pleasure of developers and lawyers, who never face a time limit for remarks, not for the residents of Chapel Hill.

  2. Don, absolutely agree. Restricting input – like the 2 minute rule – sends a clear message – an informed process is not welcomed.

    It’s been interesting to watch the Chamber and developers refine their calls for less and less time – whinging on about too much participation, too much analysis, too many opinions. They understand that a process that limits comments to opinion – “I like it”, “I don’t” are easy to dismiss.

    Time is needed to present worked out positions – facts, analysis, maps, diagrams, etc. – in a coherent fashion.

    That the majority of Council remains unconcerned when so many citizens point out their written, surveyed and oral comments have been ignored, unrecorded, uncompiled is also very troubling and doesn’t bode well for our small-d democracy.

    I’ve been along for the CentralWest ride from day one – there has been a tidal wave of input which should have informed the current CWSC Draft. Where is the appendix capturing all the thoughtful, creative, detailed and prepared input from concerned folks?

    The DRAFT should be about 3 inches thick with all the great insights, concerns, observations, counter-proposals,questions.

    That clearly isn’t the case.

    For over 9 months, Council has been told that their $230K consultant, the Town staff (from the top on down) have deliberately ditched the citizens efforts. Yet, zip concern from the majority of Council.

    Heck, you have Stancil now trying to blame residents for his inability to keep up with the cost of the effort. For shame. Yet the majority of this Council continues to accept practices that are an anathema to good governance.

  3. There was a proposal that the OWASA Board follow Chapel Hill’s Town Council’s lead on limiting public input.

    I’m very happy to say my fellow Board members adopted the most liberal public input policy of any of the local governmental/quasi-governmental units.

    Of course, we rarely face big crowds of dissenting citizens.

    Hey, that’s an idea! Maybe the Council would find less folks popping up to have their say if they actually spent more time working with the grain instead of against it 😉

  4. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 28, 2013

    It’s fantastic that so many people are engaging in the town’s business (which of course is the people’s business). Hard to appreciate why the meeting room was configured for only 100 people.

    Will the meeting on the 21st be devoted to Central West – and in a space that’s large enough for the expected turnout?

  5. DOM

     /  October 28, 2013

    I agree that everyone should have the opportunity to speak, but when most of them say almost the same thing over and over it can prove taxing to those who came to listen to differing views rather than just one.

  6. Don Evans

     /  October 28, 2013

    If a lot of people have a common complaint, it could be the complaint is valid. When you hear many people saying the same thing, then you have to consider that there is something really bugging these folks. A considerate council would take that to heart and not just become impatient and scornful and look for ways to get around those complaints.

    I have the greatest respect for the people who muster the courage to speak before the council, knowing that the council members don’t want to hear their views and will do much to keep their views from being heard.

    I have a problem with an elected body that shies away from listening to the electorate.

  7. DOM

     /  October 28, 2013

    I agree with you, Don; I also have great respect for those who speak before council. But sometimes the strident repetitive refrain of several angry citizens, all expressing the same view, can be very intimidating to those who may may have something to say that does not agree with that view.

    Of late, a relatively small but well-organized group of citizens seems to have taken over most of the public discussion on a number of topics. To me, this isn’t really the Voice of the People – it’s one side of an issue trying to monopolize the argument.

  8. Don, you have spent enough time in Town Hall that I know you understand that while folks bring up many concerns and suggestions on a particular topic, they aren’t all saying the same thing.

    It’s a lazy and disingenuous characterization to suggest that folks who have organized and stand to speak are repeatedly saying the same thing but one that has some traction because it isn’t challenged often.

    For instance, the other night when about a dozen folks spoke on Central West, they each had a particular area carved out to comment on – lack of transparency and public process, traffic impacts, stormwater, lack of data on density, concerns about economic returns (and the failure to follow through on an economic analysis as per the CWSC), environmental issues including removal of a unique urban forest, etc.

    These folks took the time to prepare thoughtful and reality-based 3 minute presentations which might have had a few overlapping themes but spoke to genuinely different aspects of the Central West story.

    It really is time to bury the notion that the grassroots is repetitive.

  9. DOM

     /  October 28, 2013

    CitizenWill –

    “It’s a lazy and disingenuous characterization… ”

    That’s just what I mean, about trying to monopolize the argument and denigrating anyone who says something contrary to what YOU think.

  10. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 28, 2013

    I agree completely with Will. First of all – its often difficult to address a complex topic in 3 minutes – so it helps to organize speakers to voice complementary statements.. I have more experience with the county – and its rare to see onging repeittive statemsnts. Ususally people will relinquish their speaking time if their points were made.

    Numbers are important – but not necessarily representative of the public at large. Good leaders and good listeners can tell the difference between fear mongering and well reasoned and/or heartfelt comments.

    We wont all agree – but everyone needs to be heard

  11. Terri Buckner

     /  October 28, 2013

    Communication is a two-way street. If you have complex issues to present and you know the listeners are going to read very similar comments (nuanced) for hours on end, why wouldn’t you make better use of your own time and ensure that your listeners will remember what you have to say by sending in your written statements? Why does everyone need to stand up and speak at the same time?

  12. Nancy Oates

     /  October 28, 2013

    Terri —

    Every council member has a day job and though well-intentioned may not have the time to read every email sent to them. Speaking at a public hearing not only forces the speaker to capture the main points in 3 minutes but ensures that council will be made aware of the speaker’s concerns.

  13. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 29, 2013

    There’s also the issue of the press and the public record. Public statements are more likely to be covered by the press. Plus other members of the public are often interested in what their neighbors have to say.

    I don’t know about the towns – but in the county – email correspondence isn’t part of the public record and is not included in meeting minutes or recordings.

  14. Terri Buckner

     /  October 29, 2013

    As someone who serves in a position where I listen to technical testimony, I can assure you that no one has the capacity to sit thru those long council meeting with multitudes of speakers and remember nuanced positions staked out in otherwise similar comments. Emails are public documents. They can be read and reviewed. They are a far more persuasive means to make your point. The sheer volume of speakers lined up and waiting makes another powerful point; but IMHO restricting the time from 3 to 2 minutes doesn’t create any significant loss in the details of a message. If the listener is overwhelmed, your nuance is lost anyway.

  15. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 29, 2013

    Terri – for the county, emails are not part of the public record unless you issue a FOIA request. I have found that several of our commissioners are good listeners and often reference public comment in their deliberations.

    Certainly there’s not a single right way to communicate.

  16. Terri, the comments I usually hear are not that nuanced or subtle. For instance:

    “I am not against development,” Chris Hakkenberg told the council. “I am however stridently opposed to the aggressive and myopic plans that have carried the day thus far in the Central West process.” – Chapelboro.com

    Chris went on, in the remaining 80 seconds he had, to describe as best as possible the unique ecological reasons for not bulldozing the ridge line east of the Birthing Center to make way for an 8 story apartment building.

    As far as preparation, I regularly read both the Chapel Hill and BOCC agendas and supplementary materials (oh, and OWASA’s, of course). It’s a lot of material.

    Based on my experience, there are only a handful of Council members who reliably and routinely plow through the written material. Again, it’s generally the same handful whom occasionally reference written or emailed communications when they discuss an issue.

    Even if all the Council was thoroughly diligent, it isn’t uncommon for staff to provide last minute game-changing materials – often without any indication of critical alterations.

    When you watch Council in action, you can usually figure out who has prepared beforehand or not – it’s not subtle or nuanced.

    Long story short – you can’t expect all the Council to have reviewed the “official” materials let alone citizen contributed input. For some, the staff presentations and citizen comment period are the first time they are hearing about a proposal.

    Which underlines why folks should turn out to speak.

    I fully agree with Don that we pay the Council to listen to our citizens who have paid them the courtesy of putting them in their positions. They should extend a greater courtesy back to the citizens and give them adequate time to communicate.

    Finally, I find the notion that listening to 10 citizens giving 3 minutes of technical reviews is any harder to follow than staffs 30 minute proposal or any of the often long, unchallenged and un-factchecked developer presentations.

  17. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 29, 2013

    Will – great points. The “unfact-checked” and long winded comments are also attributed to staff – not just deveopers..

    Maybe the answer is to impose 3 minute limits on staff and developers?.

  18. Terri Buckner

     /  October 29, 2013

    “I fully agree with Don that we pay the Council to listen to our citizens who have paid them the courtesy of putting them in their positions. They should extend a greater courtesy back to the citizens and give them adequate time to communicate.”

    I agree with that too. But communication doesn’t have to mean speaking for 3 minutes on a particular night. I’ve frequently heard council members reference emails they’ve received and the overall trend of those communications.

    Professors learned many years ago that if they want students to learn and UNDERSTAND the material, they need to provide lecture notes. When they give those notes in advance of the lecture, the quality of the interaction is significantly improved (years and years of research to document this). Citizens speak to educate the council on their concerns. Providing written comments gives those council members who are interested with “lecture notes.”

    I like the OWASA board advice “Speakers are invited to submit more detailed comments via written materials, ideally submitted at least three days in advance…”

  19. Nancy

     /  October 29, 2013

    It takes a lot of time to read things, and council members are inundated with things to read. The Timber Hollow applicant submitted 368 pages alone, and much of the relevant information was buried in it. I had wanted to brainstorm with the mayor and Sally Greene and Donna Bell ways to preserve some affordable units in Timber Hollow, but once the SUP had been filed, council members were not supposed to discuss it unless all council members were present, which leaves only council meetings or email sent to each council meeting. It is frustrating, because in the case of Timber Hollow, council will have to make decisions on the spot without having time to consider creative solutions.

  20. Don Evans

     /  October 29, 2013

    It’s pretty scary what has been provided in the Timber Hollow proposal as fact and been accepted by the town staff and Planning Board — zoning violations, ignorance of state law, basic facts distributed by Ron Strom as truth that are obvious misstatements or exaggerations — all ignored by the very people who are paid to catch that stuff.

    So we very much need residents and neighbors to point these things out. More importantly we need the council members to take this stuff seriously because the staff and developers have failed them — repeatedly.

  21. Chris Jones

     /  October 29, 2013

    “The “unfact-checked” and long winded comments are also attributed to staff – not just deveopers.”

    And to members of council. And certainly to citizen speakers as well. No one is immune from that indictment.

  22. Chris – agree. To make your point, I started to tote up the speaking time for all the participants at the CH2020 approval hearing.

    That night, citizens stood before Council highlighting the many specific deficiencies in that work product (and, yes, they didn’t repeat themselves).

    The Mayor was especially loquacious that evening – taking the time to carefully rebuke constituents who had the temerity to challenge the competency of the CH2020 end-product.

    That night we also saw a real low point in Council/citizen communications as the public comment period was led off with a self-serving 11 minute infomercial and both Chair’s proudly lauding what they must have known was a really poor conclusion.

    After the meeting their were a slew of complaints about how the churlish, long-winded serfs caused the meeting to drag on.

    A bit upset, I decided to start counting the minutes. Folks here will probably not be surprised to find how incredibly lopsided the score was – with laudatory comments from Council and Co-Chairs taking a significant chunk of time with very few minutes – outside of the citizens comments – spent on substantive discussion of the expensive CH2020 material before them.

    Surely something as momentous as the CH2020 process – an effort our citizens poured their creativity and time into – deserved a more thorough public examination.

    After a few hours of carefully measuring the time I had reached my limit. If anyone is interested in seeing it done I’ll take it up again.

  23. Bonnie Hauser

     /  October 29, 2013

    What’s sad is that the citizen comment is often needed to refute spurious or inaccurate statements from staff and others.

    Of course many situations are just fine and no one shows up. But when things go awry, you have to wonder who’s responsible for fact checking and why does the burden shift to citizens.

    Then citizens pack the room and wait for hours to be heard, while leaders “run the clock”.

    Will – no need to count -most of us have seen it first hand. Thanks for bringing it out in the open.

  24. many

     /  October 29, 2013

    I just watch “West Wing” reruns…….

  25. DOM

     /  October 29, 2013

    CitizenWill

    “After a few hours of carefully measuring the time I had reached my limit. If anyone is interested in seeing it done I’ll take it up again.”

    Yes, please keep measuring.

  26. Bonnie

     /  October 31, 2013

    Now I’m confused. Cause the CW listserve suggests that both CW and Obey Creek will be heard on the 25th. So it’s a great chance to get your fill of late nights and citizen frustration.

    Who’s responsible for the long meetings when two complex topics with high public interest get scheduled for the same night?

  27. The mayor?

  28. From observing both the Central West and Obey Creek committee processes, my memory is that each agreed independently that the last Council meeting of the year would be when they would finalize deliverables: in the case of CW, the small area plan, and for OC, the principles and some other matters. CW has already had a public hearing on its product, and OC has not one before the Council. As I stated on October 19, I am now willing to extend the time for the CW Small Area Plan. Did not hear anyone else at the table say that.

  29. Phil

     /  November 1, 2013

    How does one get on the Central West listserv?

  30. Ed, I know citizens are really struggling to find someone to vote for this year.

    My hope is that they recognize that you have routinely engaged in the messy business of democracy where many of the other candidates haven’t.

    While we disagree on particulars and policy on ocassion, I appreciate your willingness to join the debate.

    Best of luck this year.

  31. DOM

     /  November 2, 2013

    “I am now willing to extend the time for the CW Small Area Plan…”
    — Ed Harrison

    “Ed, I appreciate your willingness to join the debate…”
    — CitizenWill

    Isn’t that touching? Two council candidates seeking out each other’s votes.

  32. Geoff Green

     /  November 2, 2013

    Ed, I know citizens are really struggling to find someone to vote for this year.

    For many of us, if not most of us, it’s not that tough.

  33. Terri Buckner

     /  November 2, 2013

    The Obey Creek committee did not select the November 25 date. It was assigned to them.

  34. If you think early voter turnout is a rough gauge to voter interest, 2013 looks a bit thin.

    2011: BOE(1095),Carrbor(885),UnivSq(907),Seymour(1356)

    Early Voter Total: 4243

    Election Total: 10,129 for Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and Carrboro or roughly 41%

    2013: BOE(220), Carrboro(670), UNC(186),Seymour(1000)

    Early Voting 2013: 2076

    Final Votes??

    http://www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/documents/2011One-stopTotals.pdf

    http://www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/includes/documents/2013NovOne-stopTotals.pdf

  35. Fred Black

     /  November 3, 2013

    Nancy, I will be listening to hear what any Town Council member says about your recommendation that’s reported in today’s CHN:
    “A dramatic option to get the attention of developers in town would be to deny the rezoning … until the developer comes up with a serious affordability plan,” she said.

  36. Nancy

     /  November 3, 2013

    It wasn’t a recommendation; it was an option.

    What may not have been clear from Tammy’s article to someone who hasn’t been following Timber Hollow is that the developer is not asking to go from R-4 to R-5, he is asking for a 15% density above R-5 with the idea that those 14 extra units would be affordable, knowing full well (because he is a lawyer) that the town can’t enforce those units being affordable.

    Ron Strom told council he hasn’t set the rates on his renovated units, but in the materials submitted to council, he says he’ll have to raise the rents 50% if he doesn’t get the 14 extra units. If those 14 units are rented at what he claims is below market rate, he won’t make much profit, so presumably if he does get the 14 “affordable” units, he’ll raise the remaining 293 units maybe 48%. There’s not much in this deal for the residents of Chapel Hill.

  37. Name Withheld By Request

     /  November 3, 2013

    “he is asking for a 15% density above R-5 with the idea that those 14 extra units would be affordable…”

    I don’t understand why isn’t this a potentially great possible solution to our affordable rental housing problem?

  38. Don Evans

     /  November 3, 2013

    Name

    Because Strom doesn’t have to set any particular units as affordable (he wants the affordable units to “float”), he is free to designate any empty unit that he cannot rent out as affordable and it meets the requirement. In other words, anything he cannot rent becomes the affordable housing for that month. If he has 14 units that are empty during a month, he can call those his affordable units and be lauded for his efforts to solve the affordable housing problem when he hasn’t done a thing to help the problem except garner some positive PR.

    Pretty slick, huh? And no, not a good solution to the town’s affordable housing rental problem. But a great PR move for any gullible residents or council members.

  39. Nancy

     /  November 3, 2013

    Phil —

    To join the Central West listserv, email Alan Tom at alantom@mindspring.com and ask to become a subscriber. He is the site administrator, and he will email an invitation to you.

  40. Terri Buckner

     /  November 3, 2013

    Nancy and Don,

    What’s the difference in what is being proposed for Timber Hollow and the pricing structure around the “affordable” units in other developments? A 550 square foot condo at East 54 is on the market for $199,000. The same sized condo in East 54 through the Community Home Trust is selling for $105,000. That’s well over a 48% differential.

    Does anyone really think there’s any developer who is NOT recouping costs on affordable units by raising the price on the market units? It’s a strategy that may be helping lower income buyers/renters but it’s also squeezing middle income people out of the local market.

  41. Name Withheld By Request

     /  November 3, 2013

    Don Evans (and Nancy) –

    I don’t understand why you two are so negative to this idea. It would be relatively easy to assure that the owner adhere to the rules he sets up with the town, wouldn’t it?

    Since we have no way of controlling affordable rental rates otherwise because of state laws, this seems to be a very equitable way to provide affordable housing for qualified tenants.

  42. Don Evans

     /  November 3, 2013

    Terri

    Completely misses the point. Strom is using his affordable housing mantra as a way to get his project passed without actually providing affordable housing. By not having to designate any particular unit as affordable, he can fiddle the available units so that only empty units are the affordable component. There is nothing in the agreement that legally enjoins him to provide the affordable housing.

    But Strom raises the ante by claiming that if he doesn’t get his extra 14 units, he will have to raise rents by as much as 50 percent or he just won’t be able to make a profit. All of the 197 units at Timber Hollow qualify at affordable right now. Strom’s plan will reduce that number to 0.

    It’s a one-two punch for the gullible — he’s claiming to increase the amount of affordable housing and thereby looking like a developer who cares while blackmailing the council into giving him leeway to increase his profits.

    Keep in mind, he’s already said he plans to flip the property in three years, and that transaction will not hold the buyer to an affordable constraints.

    It’s all PR and fantasy. Strom, the slick salesman who will say anything to close the deal, is selling a dubious bill of goods to the town and council. And he wants to look good while he takes advantage of the town. Even worse, if the council approves this, it will open the door for any other development proposal to claim it is providing affordable housing and get an extra number of units added to its plan.

    The Strom Precedent will be a disaster for the town and especially for affordable housing.

  43. Name Withheld By Request

     /  November 3, 2013

    Don Evans –

    “Strom, the slick salesman who will say anything to close the deal, is selling a dubious bill of goods to the town and council.”

    Wow. I don’t know the history of this development very well but, are you sure you want to be accusing him like that? Do you have any evidence this is true?

  44. Don Evans

     /  November 3, 2013

    Name

    Learn the history. Read the project proposal. Either way, you will get a glimpse of just what Strom has in mind. And it ain’t addressing affordable housing in the community.

    Most telling moment at the hearing for Timber Hollow a week and a half ago — Sally Greene asked Strom why not get Empowerment or DHIC to help his management company oversee the affordable housing at Timber Hollow. Strom was evidently taken aback and at a loss at the proposal, and tried to come up with a way to wriggle past the question. Pretty obvious he doesn’t want any respectable agency helping to manage the affordable units of the project — as I said, he has another use in mind for those “affordable” units.

  45. Terri Buckner

     /  November 4, 2013

    Don,

    I think it’s you who is missing the point. Your animosity of the man is causing you to blame him for something that is already happening. The desire for affordable housing is blinding the community to the fact that our methods are being counterproductive. Now instead of delving into the ‘success’ of inclusionary zoning, council is looking to apply the theory to rentals. Timber Hollow is just a side story, not the heart of the issue.

  46. Fred Black

     /  November 4, 2013

    Nancy, do you think your “option” is legal or will we have another court case?

  47. Nancy

     /  November 4, 2013

    Fred, I presented about a dozen or so options to council that night. The option of declining to change the zoning is legal. What hasn’t been established as legal is allowing a landowner to “buy” favorable zoning by promising affordable housing. But Ralph Karpinos, Mark Kleinschmidt and Sally Greene are lawyers, and I rely on them to come up with a solution that won’t involve the town in yet another lawsuit.

    And, Terri, that’s the problem of trying to apply the inclusionary zoning method to rentals. State law says it is not legal. The town will have to find a way around that. Personally, I think the way around it is to approve R-5 without a density bonus, and script the SUP so that all the new units are in the one building the developer proposed and jettison the expensive townhouses. It won’t ensure affordability; the town can’t do that. But it will create an environment where the developer doesn’t have to charge exorbitant rents to make a sizeable profit. If he jacks up rents anyway, town will have learned a lesson and in the future allow density increases only to developers like DHIC and Zinn Design Build who have a track record of providing affordable housing.

  48. Don Evans

     /  November 4, 2013

    Terri

    What’s the expression — If you’re not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention.

  49. DOM

     /  November 4, 2013

    Your one-sided views of the Timber Hollow situation seem eerily similar to the “outraged” neighbors in the Central West area.

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