‘We’re moving too fast’

Every Town Council member should be required to watch a video of one of our council meetings. Nancy OatesWe’d be mortified by our pettiness.

I missed the June 20 meeting because I was part of a church polity updating positions on such issues as the church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community, interventions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the efficacy of divesting from fossil fuel corporations. We held passionate and diverse views, yet for the most part we conducted our debates “decently and in order.”

Then I returned to Town Council, where at our June 27 meeting, the group devolved into power struggles over what time to start our six work sessions next fiscal year and whether to vote on receiving and referring petitions.

One of Mayor Pam Hemminger’s first initiatives after taking office was to create a process for taking action on and tracking petitions so the concerns the community brings us are resolved. Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, yet Sally Greene fretted, “We’re moving too fast!”

That sentiment explains much of the puzzling behavior of some council members. A few weeks ago, Donna Bell balked at the proposal that council discuss a way to compensate staff that helps close the wealth gap. Then Greene, Bell, Michael Parker and Maria Palmer boycotted the vote to fill a vacancy on the Community Design Commission, leaving the commission with an even number of members and vulnerable to tie votes that stall progress.

This week, along with her motion to require a vote before receiving and referring petitions, Bell insisted we revert to starting work sessions at 6 p.m., instead of 7, despite that posing a hardship for council members and constituents who work traditional hours or want to have dinner with their families. (Jess Anderson suggested a compromise – start at 6:30 – which we agreed to try.)

Change is hard for many of us. But council members need to keep in mind that we serve the public. The summer away from one another may give us room to reorient ourselves to that notion, and maybe grow up a bit.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. plurimus

     /  June 28, 2016

    “Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, yet Sally Greene fretted, “We’re moving too fast!”

    “Donna Bell balked at the proposal that council discuss a way to compensate staff that helps close the wealth gap”

    “……….Greene, Bell, Michael Parker and Maria Palmer boycotted the vote to fill a vacancy on the Community Design Commission, leaving the commission with an even number of members and vulnerable to tie votes that stall progress.”

    “Bell insisted………”

    I do not think its a question of maturity. It sounds more like the extreme and uncompromising partisan ideologues in Washington; who shoot down even their own good ideas if someone else suggests it.

    Sad. I hope the voters remember.

  2. Nancy, I haven’t been in Council chambers for a long while, mainly because the majority of the former Council clearly communicated it wasn’t interested in what I (or any other resident of the community who wasn’t on the “rah rah growth at any cost” train) had to say about development, the environment, affordable housing or a whole slate of other issues.

    Last night, as you know, I presented a petition calling on an assessment of previous planning decisions with an eye towards learning some lessons to inform future actions.

    We’ve been running a high density development experiment in Chapel Hill over the last 7 years, it’s well past time to evaluate if the expectations created during the approval process have panned out as projected.

    There were some pretty big claims of community benefit (and minimal community costs) with the buildouts of East54, Lux, Shortbread Lofts, Greenbridge and West140. The Town now has enough data to see if what was promised is what was delivered.

    What is missing is some kind of objective yardstick to tote up the pluses and minuses of these developments along with a commitment to do both a historical analysis of a projects trajectory and a comparative analysis between similar attributes of each.

    Simply, is the community getting the bang that justified a project for its buck.

    The Town just did a cursory evaluation of East54 that completely missed the point. While it presented the current state of affairs, mentioning some of the promises made to secure its approval, much of the historical context was left out. Further, any outlier was ignored (like the zero sum game of moving existing Chapel Hill businesses into the building instead of developing new ones).

    The idea isn’t new. I’ve been calling for it for over a decade and made it a central plank in my 2005-2009 runs for Council.

    Del Snow, Amy Ryan and I convinced most of the remaining members of the Visioning Task Force we needed such a framework 7 years ago (only to have it submarined by Chair George Cianciolo).

    I know that I and others have asked for similar reviews within CH2020, Central West processes and many times since.

    This latest attempt was spurred by several discussions with Council members like yourself, Pam, Sally and many other folks working on local development issues.

    With the evolving mess on Elliott Rd. and a slew of new development erupting along Rosemary St., I thought it was a good time to resurrect the call.

    Having delivered the petition, I thought that Council would make a few comments and move on.

    I’ve seen a lot of incarnations of Council and sat through hundreds of meetings since 1999. I have to say what happened during petitioning and after was very troubling.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I generally don’t watch complete meetings anymore – jumping in when a particular issue comes up. I got used to skipping the first 1/2 hour or so of self-congratulatory windup, politicking and other incidentals.

    In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been so suprised as the kind of thing that happened with Donna Bell certainly reprized some of the same elements of conduct that drove me away from attending Council meetings in the first place.

    The end-product, for me, was a bit of lack of confidence that my and Al Rimer’s petitions would get a fair hearing by some of the Council and, especially in my case, staff whose prior decisions would be thrown into review.

    I hope that heightened concern is only a side-effect of my muted shock at what I saw last night.

  3. Quick comment on “We’re moving too fast!”

    I review most week’s agendas and remain concerned that Council is putting too many large fiscal impact decisions and other similar issues into the consent agenda.

    Maybe Council has agreed, behind the scenes, that allocating big chunks of money or making a major change in Town policy is fine with them but piling these items up into what is often a non-discussed, one vote consent agenda does not align with pledges of greater transparency and understanding.

    At the least, I’d like to see some kind of cap on the dollars approved within an item on the consent agenda or an explanation – like this week’s human service expenditure – that the allocations had been previously vetted.

  4. Nancy

     /  June 28, 2016

    With the process Mayor Hemminger has instituted, petitions are dealt with now, rather than disappearing after presented. I’m not a big fan of council comments after petitions because usually they are either grandstanding or dismissive. What I am concerned about is that voting on petitions won’t change anything other than give council the power to publicly humiliate someone by not voting to refer a petition. In hindsight, I wish I had been more vocal about that and voted against the motion.

    The large amount of money for Human Services Advisory Board is to give all agencies a fair shake at receiving money from the town. What has happened in prior years is that some agencies would go directly to a department and ask for money, thus side-stepping the vetting and approval process. All agencies now have to apply and be vetted by the HSA board. This year we put enough money in that pool to cover all the grants that had been doled out by other town staff. I see this as a very positive step.

    I questioned the $1M in change orders for the Bolin Creek path, and the town manager responded by email to go into more detail. Council members have been sending questions to the manager before the meeting so we get a more detailed response than asking at a meeting when staff may not have the information. Does the public see those emails? I assumed they were on the website in the archives. Let me know if you don’t see it, and I’ll forward to you the manager’s response about the Bolin Creek overage.

    I agree we would benefit by looking at what high-density developments have delivered compared to what they promised. I have confidence that Pam’s tracking system will make sure that it is done. Well worth the staff’s time to do that, given how I suspect much we’re investing in private, for-profit development.

  5. Thanks for the updates Nancy.

    Glad you were able to pry the $1+ M in overages on the Bolin Creek greenway project – I was looking for a detailed breakdown and timeline of both the changes and required repairs so you’ve made that job a lot easier!

    I liked how the Human Services request was presented as it was clear there was some audit trail to follow and an independent set of eyes used to vet the allocations.

    I’m glad Pam has worked to implement a tracking system. Interesting how slow the wheels grind when it comes to the Town embracing technology. The former Town Tech Advisory Board recommended a problem reporting system about 14 years ago – nice to see it finally seeing the light of day.

    I understand why Donna Bell interjected as she did and don’t fault you for being a bit blindsided.

    I do want to clarify one very clearly incorrect assertion by several of the old-hands on Council. There have been many citizen petitions that were received but not referred over the last 17 years I’ve observed the Council. Councils used to routinely torpedo petitions that would expose embarrassing or uncomfortable facts or would throw light on mistakes and misdeeds. I had dozens of petitions I made on behalf of others or myself dealt with in just that fashion.

  6. Nancy, why are your colleagues so hellbent on moving forward with 415 W. Franklin St. (Lot #3)?

    There are several HUGE problems with the proposal starting with it is a terrible deal – once again – for Chapel Hill’s taxpayers. Did we learn NOTHING from the fiscal and economic disaster of West140?

    Why do we need to throw more taxpayer subsidies at a development Downtown when we have yet to honestly evaluate the community costs and benefits of Greenbridge, Shortbread Lofts and West140 or to get a chance to see how University Square’s redevelopment pans out or even to evaluate the already in-process Amity Station proposal?

    It’s like the Council wants to run residents ragged – pushing harder and faster for unbalanced development – at a pace where the community doesn’t have the time to recover its breath and, in a much calmer fashion, see if the touted upsides of these mega-projects are real and beneficial. We already have seen the soft corruption of expedited behind doors deal-making with the last Council – are we going to see more of the same?

    Unlike the Chamber mouthpieces who make a living promoting the most hair-brained taxpayer subsidized proposals or our Town Manager and Economic Development Officer who seemed to have drifted further and further from serving all the citizens of Chapel Hill interests, I and other concerned folks don’t have the deep pockets and resources to expend on another full blown deceptive process with a preordained resolution.

    I guarantee we will get a much better deal by holding our hand (like we should have with West140).

    The Council needs to pace itself – pass on this evolving boondoggle – and play the Lot #3 chip another day.