Downtown group kicks off political season
Getting ahead of the crowd, the Friends of the Downtown set off the political season Thursday by hosting the first forum for candidates vying for seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council.
Nine candidates are competing for four town councils seats in a race that is shaping up to be the one to watch in Orange County this fall.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt is unopposed for reelection. Mayoral candidates in Carrboro and Hillsborough also are unopposed.
Kleinschmidt told the 100 or more people attending the forum at the Franklin Hotel that he wouldn’t mind having at least one challenger in the November 5 municipal election.
“I actually believe that if we had another mayoral candidate who was standing here after I finished speaking, I think our community would benefit from that,” Kleinschmidt said. “I want to have dialogue.”
The candidates vying for the nine council seats won’t have trouble finding someone to debate.
The crowded field includes one incumbent – longtime council member Ed Harrison, who is currently the Mayor Pro Tem.
It also includes Sally Greene, who many consider an incumbent although she was appointed to the board in January to complete the term of former councilwoman Penny Rich. Rich moved on after winning election to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.
Green previously served on the council for two terms, but did not seek reelection in 2011.
As one might expect, many questions put to the candidates Thursday revolved around growth and development in the downtown, while others centered on the perceived panhandling problem.
George Cianciolo, co-chairman of the town’s Chapel 2020 process to update its comprehensive plan, said the plan laid out a wonderful vision for the town but does not provide the money to implement the vision.
“These things we aspire to will all require increased spending,” Cianciolo said. “The fact of the matter is if Chapel Hill doesn’t do anything, the cost of running the town will increase.”
If elected, Cianciolo said, he will work to provide that needed increase in revenue through thoughtful increases in growth to provide additional tax revenue.
Loren Hintz, a retired high school teacher, said he would focus on making government more proactive, protecting the environment and improving transit if he is elected.
He was asked how he would handle complaints about aggressive panhandling on Franklin Street.
“I think one part is educating the public,” Hintz said. “Obviously, I support the idea of encouraging people to donate to organizations rather than individuals.”
Gary Kahn, a Southern Village resident, drew a question from the audience, asking about his views on economic development.
“It’s very important,” Kahn said.
Paul Neebe, a Realtor and freelance musician, said he is running because he loves the town and wants to see the quality of life there maintained and improved.
He said individual property taxes are too high, which burdens taxpayers and reduces the ability to produce affordable housing.
“One way to reduce taxes is to increase commercial development,” Neebe said. “Whether we like it or not, Chapel Hill is going to grow. The key is to allow it to grow without reducing our quality of life.”
Maria Palmer, a local pastor and education consultant, said she has been an avid listener to Chapel Hill residents for nearly 20 years as a columnist for a local newspaper.
Palmer said she has heard from residents worried about too much growth, business owners concerned about parking and signage, immigrants who want Sunday bus service because it’s their only day off during the week and others concerned about various issues in town.
She was asked how she would propose to improve stormwater management in the wake of recent floods that displaced dozens of families.
“What we need is the best engineering you can get, and in our town we have the expertise to tackle any problem that comes our way,” Palmer said.
Amy Ryan, a freelance book editor, was asked about the hostility expressed at a recent meeting about housing being built for millionaires.
“We live in a country where people have private property development rights, so if someone has a piece of property and they have a use that they want to do and that property is zoned for that use, they have a right to do that,” Ryan said. “I think that sometimes can be a lost opportunity for the town, and I would hope that we can make our zoning and make our planning work so that we find best uses for places like that.”
Dante “D.C.” Swinton, is a newcomer to Chapel Hill and the youngest candidate in the field at 25.
Swinton said he is running to improve the lives of residents living below the poverty line and to help reduce violence, particularly sexual assault and domestic violence.
“We as a community must act now to create an environment that has a zero tolerance for sexual and domestic violence,” said Swinton, who volunteers at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.
Greene, who has been a leader in the struggle to bring more affordable housing to town, said she didn’t think the problem is simply a problem of supply and demanded as some suggested.
“I believe that we have to take more proactive measures if we want to enact that value that we all share of increasing the stock of affordable housing and rental housing in particular,” Greene said.
Harrison was asked how he feels about the use of tax dollars to pay consultants for their help in planning for the focus areas identified during the Chapel Hill 2020 process.
He noted a cost overrun for the consultant in the central-west focus area.
“I think that’s a case where the consultants should not have been the facilitators for a lot of their examination of their own products,” Harrison said. “Maybe, we should have had a free-standing facilitator. We have a number in town government who could do it.”