Council applicants make their pitch
The 11 candidates vying to replace Penny Rich on the Town Council all put their best foot forward Monday, hoping to be the one the council chooses next week to serve the remainder of Rich’s term.
The council is expected to select Rich’s replacement at its regular business meeting Jan. 23. The meeting is on a Wednesday instead of Monday due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
If the council does make an appointment Jan. 23 meeting, the person chosen would be sworn in Jan. 28.
“That’s just in time for our council retreat (Feb. 1-2), so don’t make any plans for that weekend,” quipped Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.
Each applicant spent about three minutes sharing with the council why he or she should be the best person to complete the term that will expire this year.
And while some town leaders have said previous council experience will weigh heavily in their decisions, one applicant said Monday that the lack of experience on the council shouldn’t be held against them.
“Some people have said I should wait to run for office because we have a more experienced candidate who could hit the ground running,” said Maria Palmer, a local pastor and education consultant. “I want to urge you to question that perspective.”
Palmer said the council and staff have plenty of experience and institutional memory and can quickly bring someone without prior experience up to speed on pressing issues.
“Should previous experience on the Town Council be the most important consideration in your choice?” Palmer asked. “Making it so can exclude important new voices. Some of you have proven that new faces bring new energy and new ideas.”
Meanwhile, former councilwoman Sally Greene, the lone former council member vying for the seat, said tough budget issues and other complex matters coming before the council this year makes it an especially tough time to lose a council member.
‘You do need all hands on deck to get you through this budget and the next election cycle when the voters will have their say,” Greene said.
She said there are many ways the council could look at making its selection, including looking at someone with experience.
“Everyone here tonight brings a unique background and many valuable skills and there are many ways you might think about making this appointment,” Greene said. “I’d like to suggest it could be useful to bring on someone with experience, someone with a proven record of accomplishment, including making hard decisions.”
Many applicants spoke about the need to improve the town’s supply of affordable housing and nearly all referenced the Chapel Hill 2020 land use plan that will guide growth and development in town for the next 20 years.
Carl Schuler, a nurse consultant at UNC Hospital where he coordinates several clinical trials for faculty members in the N.C. Center for Heart and Vascular Care, noted his community involvement and service over the past 15 years.
He said the town must expand economic development and incorporate the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan so that the town can accommodate growth and development and entrepreneurial ventures.
Aaron Shah, an IT specialist at UNC, said he would focus on affordable housing.
“My objective is to make this available for town residents as well as other university employees, town and state employees,” Shah said. “I think we all should be able to take advantage of these opportunities, living closer to town.”
Gary Kahn, a Southern Village resident who seldom misses a council meeting, touted his involvement in town matters.
He said he sided with council decisions on several controversial issues such as the cell phone ban that was overturned in court.
“I’m disappointed that a certain judge kind of threw it out the window,” Kahn said. “There are a lot of people who I talk to in the community in support of a cell phone ban.”
David Jackson, a consultant and real estate broker who moved to Chapel Hill 18 months ago from Denver, Colo., said his experience in public and private sectors makes him a good candidate to fill the seat.
“The challenges faced by council today, and this community, will require urgent but intentional decisions of one strategic economic growth with internal systems to support it,” Jackson said.
He also said serving on council will require tough decisions on homelessness.
“Not only to end homelessness in the next 10 years, but provide affordable housing and a quality of life to those in need,” Jackson said.
Loren Hintz, a high school teacher who serves on the Orange County Commission for the Environment, said he has learned to understand the needs of diverse communities through teaching experiences and stint in the Peace Corps.
If chosen to fill the vacancy, Hintz said he would work to improve existing policies rather than calling for radical changes.
However, he said the one thing he would change is the way council handles plans developed by citizen boards and commissions.
“One frustration of citizens who serve on boards and task forces, if they work hard to create a report, council adopts it, but too often the report is not implemented or is forgotten when future development projects are presented,” Hintz said. As a council member, I’d want to be an advocate for implementing what citizens have created.”
Bjorn Pedersen, a Chapel Hill native attending UNC, congratulated the council on its part in making Chapel Hill a great place to live.
But he said the town must loosen some of its development restrictions to allow denser development to accommodate people wanting to live there.
“A lot of people want to move here and we want to accommodate them but not push out the people who have lived here for a long time,” Pedersen said. “I think a major step in accomplishing both of these tasks together is severely relaxing our zoning ordinances. I think that would allow both the density we need for dynamic and smart growth to occur and also to allow the supply of housing to reach the demand of incoming residents.”
Jennifer Marsh, director of research, community services and student programs at the UNC Center for Civil Rights and a Chapel Hill native, said she knows firsthand how difficult it is for a family of modest means to live in Chapel Hill due to the lack of affordable housing.
In addition to a shortage of affordable housing, Marsh said the town is also facing other issues such as the impending development of Carolina North, a decision about solid waste disposal and major transportation issues.
“Those decisions are all interconnected and directly impact each other,” Marsh said. “As we go forward, it’s important to consider these issues as a group. It’s also important to consider the impact these decisions will have on low-income and minority neighbors.”
Like many of the applicants, Paul Neebe, a professional Realtor and freelance musician, said affordable housing is one of the bigger issues facing the town.
“Affordable housing to me means the policemen, the firemen and the teachers of this community need to be able to afford to live here,” Neebe said.
He said a police officer recently told him only two members of the police force live in Chapel Hill because it’s too expensive.
“Part of the problem I think is that the property taxes are too high compared to our neighbors, Chatham, Lee and Durham counties,” Neebe said “I suggest we try to expand the commercial tax base to reduce the reduce the burden on the individual property owner.”
Amy Ryan, a freelance editor of fiction and nonfiction books, said the town is facing tough budget and fiscal issues.
“I’m a numbers nerd and I look forward to helping tackle these tough issues,” Ryan said.
She said the council is right to focus on ways to make Chapel Hill more robust financially, but should look beyond the “old-economy model of brick and mortar retail development.
“We must foster innovative thinking and promote new kinds of growth that capitalizes on our talent base, provides living-wage jobs, increases tax revenue, and nurtures home-grown business,” Ryan said. “The new LAUNCH Chapel Hill initiative and the enterprise hub on Rosemary Street proposed as a 2020 Big Idea are excellent first steps.”