We haven’t made it yet

As I waited for the traffic light to change at the corner of Columbia andNancy Oates Franklin streets on Friday afternoon, a school bus pulled up beside me. A little kid stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Yay! We made it to summer!”

Council members undoubtedly are looking ahead a couple weeks to the day they can yell that, too. But many of us in the community approach the end of the council year with the low-grade feeling of dread that parents feel this time of year as they realize how much extra work summer means for them.

The public hearing for Obey Creek continues tonight, June 15, and council likely will vote on the project then. Donna Bell and Maria Palmer already have said they will vote to approve the project as is, regardless of any additional information that comes in.

Last week staff introduced plans for two smaller versions of the project that would reduce the traffic jams and save the Resource Conservation District while netting just as much tax revenue as the larger plan. The new plans corroborated what financial analysts and others in the community had proposed all along. But the optimism many of us had last week has faded as council members dismissed the plans without discussion and seemed hell-bent on approving the larger traffic-clogging iteration.

I base this not on any inside information but simply on pattern recognition. We’ve been through this with Central West, Ephesus-Fordham and The Edge. Council hears the reports of various advisory boards and sits through information presented by community members, then dismisses the recommendations of the boards, ignores the information by the community and votes for what makes the most money for the developer.

I haven’t heard one community member who is against a development on the Obey Creek land. But I have heard many, many who are incensed about the additional traffic, others who are concerned about building a road in the RCD and some who dread the tax increase that is lurking down the road to pay for services for all these new apartments.

By choosing one of the smaller versions of Obey Creek, council members have the opportunity to fix all of the problems these voters are worried about. Council could take some time to consider the best alternative or work out the details of handling the traffic and cost to taxpayers of a larger version, as well as how to squish that square footage into the buildable acreage without spilling over into the RCD.

But my prediction is that council will do what they’ve done before: give the developer all he is asking for, and do it quickly, so voters have more time to forget before Election Day. And then council members can skip away, yay, they’ve made it to summer, and the rest of us will be stuck with making more sacrifices while our elected officials play.
– Nancy Oates

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38 Comments

  1. many

     /  June 15, 2015

    I suspect you are correct. I also cynically expect that there is a tact agreement that groundbreaking will not occur until after the election. I also predict that there will be an after the fact realization of the impact among the “silent majority”. Many will cry “why weren’t we informed?”

  2. Bruce Springsteen

     /  June 16, 2015

    Sadly, I’m cynical enough to think elections around here may not matter. It’s not like dissenting voices or the masses are encouraged to speak up and as a result lots of people are disconnected from the whole electoral process.

    Speaking of reasons people are disconnected from the process, and tying it to the TC meeting tonight, the most annoying moment for me was when Donna Bell got on her high horse about doing what she was elected to do.. The reason Donna Bell was elected was because she was an incumbent and the reason she was an incumbent was because of sleazy dealings on the part of CH politicians using the political power given them by the electorate to suppress the will of said electorate,

    Yes, it’s been a long time since all that happened, but that’s THE WHOLE POINT, namely that if someone gets such a position under those circumstances then it’ll hang over them forever. If TC at the time said they’d only appoint someone that agreed to serve out Bill Strom’s term and then not run for election then nobody would have batted an eye no matter who was appointed to serve out the term.

    So for someone to get political power under such circumstances and then act like they’re being obstructed from carrying out the will of the people is truly galling. If she thinks she’s so valuable she can not run again and see if town government manages to go on functioning without her. I’m pretty sure it will do so just fine.

    The larger moral in all this is that it takes so little for politicians to do what’s right in the short term and it makes such a difference in the long term, so why can’t they just do it? It would have been so easy to just appoint someone only to serve out Strom’s term and then start the seat anew in the 2011 election. And whoever would have won the seat probably have roughly the same political positions as Donna Bell anyway. It’s so obvious that it was right and that it would be best in the long run. Why couldn’t the people with the power resist?

  3. Runner

     /  June 16, 2015

    Bruce,

    You point is well taken. The current design of the Town Council creates 9 minimally different members resulting in little more than a group think mentality.

    Arguing specific issues with a with a group of 9 people effectively representing one major constancy block is a fools errand.

    How do we create a leadership team that better represents the many points of view of our residents?

    Here’s my recommendation. And, I think it’s what’s those looking for change should really be fighting for.

    What this town needs is district level voting for ToC seats. Take 6 of the seats and allocate them by some combination of voting precincts. Allow the other 2 ToC seats to be at-large seats. Add in the Mayor’s seat to make 9.

    Break the seats into 2 blocks of 3 District seats and 1 at-large seat. Each alternating block holds a 4 year term that comes up for election every 2 years. The Mayor’s seat is a 2 year seat and comes up at each election.

    There, that’s my non-snarky contribution.

  4. Nancy

     /  June 16, 2015

    Runner, in theory district voting could work. And now that we are gearing up to be a city not a town, it might make sense. My concern: Will the town remain heterogeneous enough to have meaningful districts? Elite apartment complexes have been approved for every quadrant of town. How will that affect district voting?

  5. Runner,

    I think your idea of switching to district level voting is well worth exploring, and your specific suggestion for how it might work is well thought out. One challenge I see is how to you get council members who are the beneficiaries of at-large voting to agree to switch to a system under which they may not fare as well, especially if two or more of them happen to live in the same neighborhood?

  6. Runner

     /  June 16, 2015

    David,

    Here’s how I see it. The CHALT group spent so much energy fighting recent development items that they’ve been labeled as anti-this and anti-that. Now, don’t get in a huff over that since what is done is done.

    If CHALT focused their attention on this single effort, they would actually be for something tangible. They can force each ToC member to go on the record on this single item prior to the election and members and supporter can vote accordingly.

    I further think that district elections would invigorate the electorate and add to political participation in Chapel Hill. How can anyone be against that?

  7. Runner

     /  June 16, 2015

    One other thing. What this town doesn’t need is wider roads. What it does need is more connecting streets to give people multiple routing options. There are several places in town crying for additional routes, but that will require some real leadership to pull off.

  8. Runner,

    I’m not in a huff, but I think it important to point out that CHALT hasn’t been fighting development items, if by “fighting” you mean trying to prevent them altogether. In every instance I’ve been involved in, including Ephesus-Fordham, the Edge, and Obey Creek, CHALT has advocated changes to the developers’ proposals that would result in greater public benefits.

    For example, in Ephesus-Fordham, CHALT advocated more specific urban design guidance and offering density bonuses in exchange for provision of affordable housing. A year after adopting the form-based code, and in response to widespread disappointment with the first major project (Village Plaza Apts), the town is finally coming around to recognizing the merits of these proposals. Better late than never.

    In the case of the Edge and Obey Creek, CHALT advocated reducing the residential component of each development to increase the fiscal benefit to the town, especially since both these projects, and Epheus-Fordham for that matter, were touted as developments intended to expand the commercial tax base.

    The fact of the matter is anyone who dares question the value to the community of a given development proposal is going to be stigmatized as anti-growth or anti-development whether or not the label fits. It’s a common bullying or diversionary tactic and an effort to marginalize those who have the temerity to stand up for the public interest.

    District voting is something that folks associated with CHALT have been discussing off and on for a few months now, and I like your idea of asking candidates to take a position on the issue.

    And I agree that widening roads is generally undesirable; in addition to being hugely expensive, it makes the roads less safe (because people drive faster) and doesn’t remedy congestion over the long term.

    The one caveat I would offer is that widening a road in order to install a dedicated bus lane for bus rapid transit can be worthwhile, but adding a dedicated bus lane sometimes can be achieved without widening the road, simply by narrowing the width of the existing vehicular lanes. This has the added benefit of inducing cars to slow down, which confers safety benefits.

  9. Don Evans

     /  June 17, 2015

    CHALT has become a lightning rod for mis-characterization because its approach to growth works against business and development interests, which want unlimited growth. CHALT is pro-community, not anti-business, and recognizes that business is essential to the community but must be conducted in a reasonable manner that does not threaten the well-being of the polity.

    CHALT advocates reasonable and considered growth and the business and development communities want growth at any cost (the “looting” concept). That’s in their best interests but is not in the best interests of the community.

    Efforts to mis-characterize what CHALT’s philosophy is will continue because an election is coming and if CHALT makes any inroads into the government structure, i.e., The Chapel Hill Town Council Brought to You by Roger Perry, it will cost business and developers.

    Very important for Roger Perry and his ilk to define the opposition to his works before anyone takes the time to really understand what CHALT advocates, which is pro-community.

  10. Runner

     /  June 17, 2015

    Don,

    You’re not doing CHALT any favors with your bitter commentary. You need a personal editor.

  11. Don Evans

     /  June 17, 2015

    Runner

    CHALT’s doing just fine without my support. It’s those among us who don’t take the time or effort to check out the facts or that don’t question the labels that others have imposed that are doing it and themselves a disservice.

  12. Runner

     /  June 17, 2015

    Yes, “looting” and “Ilk” don’t infer any labels.

  13. Don Evans

     /  June 17, 2015

    Runner

    “Ilk” is neutral in my copy of Webster’s — no connotations there, just means “same.”

    As for “loot,” that is exactly what recent developers are doing to the community when they build projects and have no intention of alleviating the burdens that come with joining a community. I thought about using “plunder or “spoils,” but opted for the shorter word.

  14. many

     /  June 18, 2015

    Don, In Chapel Hill the proper synonym for “loot” is “swag”

  15. bonnie hauser

     /  June 19, 2015

    I love the districting discussion. What a great idea. In real cities, each seat represents a district (one seat per district, no overlap, only the mayor is at-large). You only vote in your district.

    What is the benefit of fewer districts or multiple seats per district? Or models like Wake County where seats are districted but voting is at-large. Huh?

    I have found districting to be a fantastic way to engage the electorate, and makes representatives more accountable to the public and to each other. I’d love to see the county pursue real districting. today the districts are a joke and most voters don’t understand them.

    I cant imagine doing something for November. But it appears to me that our at-large government hasn’t worked for some time.

  16. many

     /  June 19, 2015

    With districting the devil is in the detail.

    How is proportional representation achieved? Strictly by numbers (that is the minimum). Add in racial, and/or socioeconomic representation and things get orders of magnitude more complex and fluid. The result is gerrymandering, which in theory is not bad, but in practice becomes a tool (weapon?) of political ideologies.

    In Chapel Hill there is an added complexity in how you represent the university population which ebbs and flows with a much more rapid and uneven cadence.

    I would be very cautious about understanding the implementation details before embracing district representation.

  17. Runner

     /  June 19, 2015

    Many,

    My only comment to your concerns is to look at the results of the current system. Today, there is virtually no intellectual diversity on the Council. Something needs to change.

  18. bonnie hauser

     /  June 19, 2015

    i agree – having lived with district representation in a university setting – it was light years beyond what’s happening here.

  19. many

     /  June 19, 2015

    Runner, as you can read from my previous posts I am highly critical of the group think and lack of intellectual curiosity on the current council. Even if they were what I would define as leaders, I think their narrow political leanings are antithetical to the term representation. This condition has been made even more acute with the departure of Matt C.

    The Kipling poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” keeps running through my mind. I am in complete agreement that things need to change.

    I am not opposed to district representation, I just do not understand what the implementation and impacts are in the Chapel Hill context. I think it is prudent to understand the change thoroughly and thoughtfully before endorsing it.

  20. Runner

     /  June 19, 2015

    Well, you can’t gerrymander a worse result than what’s going on today.

  21. David

     /  June 19, 2015

    As a first pass, I would take the existing voting precincts and group them into some number of municipal voting districts (I believe six was mentioned). There are various algorithms that can be used to discourage gerrymandering, such as drawing the districts in a way that minimizes the maximum distance between any two points within a given district; this has the effect of favoring compact, circular districts over long narrow or irregularly shaped districts.

  22. Bonnie Hauser

     /  June 20, 2015

    David that’s a good start. There are some natural groupings of communities – southern village/obey creek, Weaver Dairy, Meadowmont, your neighborhood, etc that’s a good place to start cause it helps to have shared interests within a district. Then you can adjust to address population requirements (I think there can’t be more than 5% difference in population).

    Many – it won’t be easy but rather than be skeptical of districting- let’s dig in and come up representative districts. I’d guess 8-10,000 people in each district.

    Look at the mess in the county cause no one was looking when the. Commissioners gerrymandered those districts,

  23. For those interested in designing voting districts for town council elections, the Chapel Hill precinct map is here:

    http://www.orangecountync.gov/document_center/Elections/Chapel_Hill_Carrboro.pdf

    Assume that each precinct comprises around 2500 voters. Your task is to group the ~20 Chapel Hill precincts into a set of six compact, contiguous voting districts each comprising 3-4 precincts. If necessary, some precincts may be divided and shared among two or more voting districts to achieve an equal number of voters in each district.

    Remember to show your work.

  24. Minerva

     /  June 20, 2015

    I can’t help but think this discussion about districts would not be happening if the Obey Creek vote had come out differently.

    This discussion seems quite analogous to what the Republicans in the NCGA have done to Wake County and Greensboro – if you can’t win under the current rules, change the rules.

  25. Nancy Oates

     /  June 20, 2015

    Minerva — Obey Creek may have been the final straw. Perhaps what happened is that people who don’t usually pay much attention to what Town Council does tuned in during the Central West process, form-based code at Ephesus-Fordham, decisions about The Edge property and then Obey Creek and saw the lack of diversity of thought among council members and noticed that, despite considerable public input, the approved plans did not divert in any appreciable way from what the developers initially proposed. Maybe that got people thinking about how to elect representatives who are concerned about what’s best for the entire community, not just the elite.

  26. David

     /  June 20, 2015

    Minerva,

    I strongly disagree. As I mentioned earlier in this thread, many of us have been discussing the merits of switching to district voting for over a year, and others no doubt have considered it long before that.

    The Obey Creek decision is simply the latest example of how, under our current at-large system, the interests of a well-organized and well-funded minority are able to trump those of the less well-organized and less well-funded majority. If you believe, as I do, that this situation is undesirable and undemocratic, why wouldn’t you seek to change it? District voting is one way to try to even the playing field.

  27. Runner

     /  June 20, 2015

    Moving to districts will not create a republican government in Chapel Hill. No matter how you designed the districts, the numbers just aren’t there for a republican majority. I believe that moving to districts will improve the representative nature of the Town Council.

    There will be unintended results, like possibly more horse trading of votes, but I feel that the elected officials will be more accountable at election time.

    Plus, it’s still better than the current system.

  28. Minerva

     /  June 20, 2015

    David, tell me, what proof do you have of your assertion that a “well-organized, well-funded minority” is doing anything in town government? I see no evidence of such.

    Further, if anything, districts would reduce representativeness and the competitiveness of our local elections.

    For example, in 2013, it took a little over 3,100 votes for someone to win election to the Town Council under our at-large system (see: http://results.enr.clarityelections.com/NC/48662/123095/Web01/en/summary.html).

    Compare this to a North Carolina city with a similar population with districts – Rocky Mount. A person there got elected with just 231 votes in a contested race – and two of the races were completely uncontested at all (see: http://results.enr.clarityelections.com/NC/47881/120285/Web01/en/summary.html).

    Under our at-large system, all incumbents face challengers and must defend their votes and records in contested elections. In district elections, there is no guarantee of this happening, as Rocky Mount demonstrates. District elections also restrict the kinds of public servants we might get. For example, suppose you live in a district where you are happy with your individual representative but disagree with a majority of the other representatives. You want to serve, but do not want to challenge your representative whom you like. You have no way to serve your town in this capacity, and you are stuck with a Council you think is not acting in your or your town’s best interest.

    Is it really true that someone who lives in Southern Village has fundamentally different needs, interests, and views than someone who lives in Larkspur? Geographically-based districts assume this to be true, but for a town of Chapel Hill’s size and demographic makeup, I see no evidence that this is the case, nor that districts would improve the representativeness and policy outcomes of our local government.

  29. Nancy Oates

     /  June 20, 2015

    I don’t know whether Larkspur and Southern Village would differ much, but Colony Woods and The Oaks might. Chapel Hill has neighborhoods of very different wealth levels, and I would hate to see all of the starter homes, working class homes and “junior professor” homes be gentrified into more upscale rentals or McMansions that serve only the well-to-do.

  30. David

     /  June 20, 2015

    Minerva,

    There are pros and cons to both district and at-large voting systems; that’s why both exist. The larger a city grows, the more likely it is to employ district voting. Whether Chapel Hill has reached the point in its growth and development that the pros of district voting outweigh the cons is a question for the community as a whole to decide. I don’t know enough yet about the subject to have a strong opinion about which system is preferable for Chapel Hill, but I think it’s a discussion worth having.

    About half of all small and medium sized cities employ some form of district voting.

    http://www.nlc.org/build-skills-and-networks/resources/cities-101/city-officials/municipal-elections

  31. many

     /  June 21, 2015

    David,

    I agree with you this is a discussion worth having (as most are). In that spirit, here are some important first pass questions that should be asked and answered about district voting. Others can likely come up with more than I can.

    Who should draw (delimit) the district lines and design the process? Since NC is neither Dillon’s Rule nor Home Rule does the NCLeg need to approve? Do both the County and the Town have to be districted?

    Single representatives per district or multiple?

    What data should be used to determine proportional representation and how far into the future should that data be projected?

    How often should district lines be redrawn?

    Should districts align with other administrative boundaries such as schools?

    What happens when there is no alternative but to divide a neighborhood among multiple districts?

    How does the process insure minority interests are protected? (…and what defines a minority interest in this context)

  32. bonnie hauser

     /  June 21, 2015

    Many – these are all important questions that need to be sorted out – and hopefully with citizen engagement. There are some legal constraints – that drive the process. Most of your questions are policy – which should be part of the conversation.

    The town – county discussion is interesting but not essential. As you know the county established districts within the last 10 years and from what I can tell most people don’t understand them. They were obviously manipulated.

    IMO the biggest issue is open-mindedness – to assure that districts are representative of the population. Since town elections are non-partisan, I’d guess it would be easier to district the town council.

  33. many

     /  June 21, 2015

    This is not what I would call representative districts…. more of a rural urban divide. The above questions all apply.
    http://www.orangecountync.gov/document_center/Elections/Commissioner_Districts.pdf

  34. Bonnie Hauser

     /  June 22, 2015

    Yes exactly, I spoke to a state official about this a few years ago and it was as though the urban-rural divide was a given and the districting had to be designed around it. Plus there’s the goofy districted primary elections and the at-large general elections.

    shame on us for allowing the county to get away with this. If a districting discussion restarts for the town and/or the county, hopefully there will be open public engagement. Except that we have no process for that.

    Oh well.

  35. Runner

     /  June 22, 2015

    You know, you could go with 4 district seats and 4 at-large seats. Elect 2 of each every 2 years along with the Mayor’s seat.

  36. In Austin, TX, a grassroots campaign successfully advocated for switching from at-large to district elections.

    “Single-member districts had been proposed before in Austin, but always voted down. This winning Proposition 3 ballot was spearheaded by a grassroots group calling itself Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR). They started meeting in March 2011 with the goal of passing a city charter amendment 20 months later.

    “AGR launched a public campaign named “10-ONE” to educate Austinites about the benefits of ten single-member districts plus citywide mayor they hoped would replace the decades-old system of six city council members and a mayor, all elected at-large. Many voters felt Austin’s population growth and increased annexation areas demanded the change. Others believed a commissioner representing their own district would be more responsive to their needs than one elected at-large.

    “Eventually AGR’s 10-ONE plan was endorsed by 30 community groups including the League of Women Voters, NAACP, City Firefighters and Police Associations, Austin Neighborhoods Council, Texas AFL-CIO, Mexican American Democrats and the Central Texas Republican Assembly, Gray Panthers and the UT Student Government.

    “With a rallying cry of “Let the people draw the maps,” AGR’s petition drive gathered 33,000 signatures. That ensured Proposition 3 got on the ballot. The Austin American-Statesman endorsed it, and on November 6, 2012 the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was born.”

    http://web.archive.org/web/20131207053619/http://www.austinredistricting.org/about/background/

    http://independentleaguetx.org/costs-of-growth/

  37. many

     /  June 29, 2015

    David,

    In a nutshell the link below describes why the talk of district scares me. Intentional or not, the current county districts drawn by partisan in (I think) 2005, are very effective at driving wedges between town and county residents. Of course, this was all under the banner of “fair and just” which is defined by the party in power. No matter how much rhetoric, I fear that the political elite will be the “people that draw the maps”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/29/one-mind-blowing-chart-shows-why-the-supreme-court-took-on-gerrymandering/?tid=pm_business_pop_b

    Full disclosure: I do not feel represented by either party, I am “unaffiliated”, and plan to stay that way. District gerrymandering has ensured partisan divide and gridlock. Fixing it will not be as easy as redistricting.

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