CHAPEL HILL- The nine candidates vying for four seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council weighed in on a variety of issues at Monday’s WCHL candidate forum, but a question from a listener about dealing with the homeless population downtown sparked the evening’s most heated debate.
***Listen to the forum***
A woman wrote in via twitter to say she’s tired of being harassed by homeless people when she’s downtown. She asked the candidates what could be done to improve the perception of safety.
Though he sympathized with her complaint, D.C. Swinton said the idea that homeless people pose a threat is based on misperception, not reality.
“The frequency of a homeless person being the perpetrator of some sort of violence is very small, so we need to take away some of the stigma of homelessness,” said Swinton.
But Gary Kahn disagreed.
“I come from a city and there are a lot of homeless people there,” said Kahn. “They have attacked people walking on the street, so I think your attitude on the homeless people is totally off-base.”
Council member Sally Greene, who’s served on Orange County’s Partnership to End Homelessness said that’s not the case in Chapel Hill.
“The statistics on who is attacking whom, in Chapel Hill and other places, is that they are more often the victims than the perpetrators,” said Greene. “There are numbers that can prove that.”
Amy Ryan suggested an education campaign.
“I think more education for the public into things like panhandling ordinances and what is allowed might be a good idea,” said Ryan.
George Cianciolo introduced the idea of “Downtown Ambassadors.”
“I think a lot of the problems with homeless people, they become sometimes harsh because people ignore them, they act like they don’t exist there. I think having people strolling the downtown as ambassadors, both to visitors and the people on the street might soften the situation,” said Cianciolo.
Candidates also turned their attention to the question of what to do with the town’s waste and recyclables.
Maria Palmer said she’d support investment in some kind of clean waste-incineration technology, even if that technology is not immediately available.
“We don’t plan and build things for right now, we’re talking about what is going to work ten years down the road, 15 years down the road,” said Palmer. “We have a responsibility to our children and the future residents of Chapel Hill to invest in infrastructure that is clean and serves the town for many years.”
But Loren Hintz, who currently serves on Orange County’s Commission for the Environment, said it could be tough to make that work on a local level.
“There’s a conflict between incineration and recycling because if you increase the amount of recycling you have less waste that can be burned,” said Hintz. “I think the economics of incineration, even if it was to use clean technology, is that Orange County by itself cannot produce enough for that to be economically viable.”
When asked if they’d support collaborating with Orange County, most agreed, but with a few caveats. Incumbent Ed Harrison said it comes down to the fiscal bottom line.
“Your primary fiduciary responsibility is to the town, and any of these agreements in this collaboration has to work well for Chapel Hill before it works well for anybody else,” said Harrison. “We hope we collaborate well enough that it works for everybody.”
Harrison and others noted that the recent change in county management would likely help smooth the way for new cooperation between local governments.
Paul Neebe summed up a strategy all candidates could endorse: “I think we all want what is best for the county and the city and we just need to get together and talk.”
Early voting starts October 17 and runs through November 2. Election Day is November 5.