Two Groups Ask Town To Donate Property

Habitat for Humanity and a private citizen separately petitioned the town Monday night to donate a property on Gomains Ave. to build an affordable housing unit.

“Habitat has been working in the Northside community for a number of years now,” said Habitat executive director Susan Levy. “We’ve also been in the process over the last 18 months of putting together lots that we can start building on in the fall of 2016.”

Levy said the addition of this lot would make eight total and the residents of these homes would pay between 500 and 675 dollars a month.

Habitat has already started taking applications for these homes and have three times as many qualified applicants than they will have homes.

The second petition was put in by Lydia Mason, who is the treasurer at Empowerment, another local affordable housing service.

“I would like, as a private citizen, petition the town to look at a model whereby a private citizen could have the land donated for me to build an affordable home for rental,” Mason said. “Rental space is as demanding as home ownership.”

Rental versus ownership is the major difference between the two petitions. Habitat applicants pay for their home through an affordable 30-year mortgage, while Mason would set up an affordable rental property.

No matter which direction the town goes in, councilwoman Maria Palmer said she wants to see a space where multiple families could live.

“I know we are trying to preserve the character of the community,” she said. “But if we have three times more people that qualify than the possible maximum units we are looking to build, there is a disconnect there.”

The council did not discuss the matter or make any decisions Monday night and are continuing to evaluate their options.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/two-groups-ask-town-to-donate-property

Chapel Hill Looks To Sell Fire Station Property

The Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously agreed to allow the town to sell the property that currently houses Fire Station 2 on South Hamilton Road.

East-West Partners has proposed to buy the property for $1.7 million and lease it back to the town.

That money would be used to build a new station on the property and East-West Partners would also build a two-story office building and a parking deck.

“The proposed agreement would allow the town to acquire a brand new fire station that would meet our needs into the future for $750,000,” town manager Roger Stancil said. “It’s a 500-year lease and the property would go on the tax books.”

The property is currently untaxed and Stancil estimated this would add $42,000 annually to the budget.

Without this deal, renovation of the new fire station is estimated to be nearly $3 million.

Interim Fire Chief Matthew Sullivan said the new station will be able to house two trucks and the EMS unit that Orange County EMS  has said it is interested in co-locating at the station.

“Given the condition of our Station 3 property and the crowding issues there, as well as the strategic location of Station 2, it’s our intention to move the ladder truck to the new fire station immediately when it opens,” he said.

The town will lease the property for the next 500 years and will pay $1 in rent per year.

“One of our citizens said ‘why are we not leasing the land, why are we selling the land,'” said councilwoman Donna Bell. “We’re getting a new station and that land underneath it, short of, you know, martians, is kind of ours.”

Mayor Pam Hemminger was also in favor of the sale.

“I’m very excited about this,” she said. “I’m not normally excited about selling town property or trading town property but we do get basically a $3 million station for $750,000.”

When renovation begins, UNC has agreed to house the crew currently at Station 2 at an old fraternity house near Finley Golf Course.

Stancil said the town also has two other fire stations that need renovation and already have proposals to buy those lots, but wanted to start with Station 2 before moving forward on to the others.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/chapel-hill-looks-to-sell-fire-station-property

Town Council Discusses January Ice Storm

The Town of Chapel Hill reviewed their process for handling ice and snow after the recent storm in their meeting Monday night.

Interim Fire Chief Matthew Sullivan said the ice storm that hit the town last month had a few characteristics that made it tough prepare for and deal with

“It wasn’t fluffy, white easy to push snow,” he said.

Sullivan also said the temperature was too low and prevented the ice from melting.

Snow and ice storm

(Photo by Blake Hodge)

From noon on Friday, when the storm first began, to noon the Monday after, there were only 12 hours of over 30 degree weather and only seven hours of sunlight, which meant ice on sidewalks and roads didn’t melt.

Some residents were upset at what they saw as a lack of response from the town when it came to clearing sidewalks.

“How we clear our streets and how we clear our sidewalks isn’t just about how we get cars from place to place,” said councilwoman Donna Bell. “It’s really a social justice issue. There are people who don’t have cars. There are some people who have to walk.”

Response to the storm cost the town $350,776 , which included spreading 32,000 gallons of brine on the roadways and hiring contractors to help get everything done.

“The Town of Chapel Hill has four brine distributors, five box spreaders, 10 plows and a motor grader,” Sullivan said. “That isn’t sufficient to do the type of clean up we need to do and so we employ contract resources.”

The town brought in an additional four plow trucks, five motor graders, three rubber tire loaders and eight skid steers.

Sullivan said the cost of storm was factored into this year’s budget and can be absorbed by individual departments.

One town employee said there are measures the town can take if another storm exceeds their current budget.

“Obviously we’re not equipped or budgeted for multiple large-storm events,” he said. “If there’s another large-storm event, the first strategy would be to try to find additional funds in departmental budgets to cover those costs.”

If there are not enough funds in those budgets, the town will look to find money in other places. In case of emergency the council can grant an additional appropriation.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/town-council-discusses-ice-storm

State Laws Affect Chapel Hill And Carrboro

Laws passed by the North Carolina General Assembly last year are now in effect that will limit the authority of local governments. Chapel Hill town attorney Ralph Karpinos presented some of these changes to the town council in their work session Wednesday night.

“As you probably have heard just by watching the media there’s not a lot of good news,” he said. “Most of it has been was in which the general assembly has been trying to reduce the authority of the town and other local governments.”

Towns in North Carolina derive their powers from the General Assembly, meaning the assembly can regulate what towns are able to do. One change made this year was to limit local government’s ability to regulate firearms.

“Prior to the 2015 session of the General Assembly, local regulation of the possession, ownership, transfer, sale, purchase, storage, licensing and registration of firearms was prohibited,” he said. “In 2015 the legislature added to this list taxation, manufacture and transportation.”

Should a local government attempt to regulate one of these issues, a person may file a lawsuit seeking damages and court costs. Karpinos said they still have the authority to regulate the discharge and display of firearms.

The General Assembly also prohibited towns from issuing sanctuary city ordinances.

“This is in large part a response to actions that were taken or reported to have been taken by a number of cities around the state, including Chapel Hill,” Karpinos said.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro had been sanctuary cities for several years, meaning that local police do not turn undocumented residents over to federal authorities, if the resident has no history of violence or felony behavior.

The law also prohibits the use of documents issue by a foreign consulate as acceptable documentation, but councilwoman Maria Palmer said the town was working on creating a local ID to give to immigrants.

“That legislation does authorize the use of locally-issued IDs, if the police accept them,” Palmer said. “We’re working right now with Centro Hispano and the chiefs of police in Carrboro and Chapel Hill and the sheriff to start issuing that documentation starting in February.”

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/state-laws-affect-chapel-hill-and-carrboro

Chapel Hill Town Council Meets For First Time In 2016

The Chapel Hill Town Council met in a work session for the first time since Mayor Pam Hemminger, along with four other council members, were sworn in last December.

The meeting was used to get council members up to speed on major projects and procedures they will need in the coming year.

Rae Buckley, assistant to the manager for organizational and strategic initiatives, gave a presentation on five different downtown building projects, including Rosemary Street, Northside and Downtown 2020.

“We feel they’re very connected to one another,” she said. “As we’re working on our projects it’s very important for us to meet on a regular basis and do a better job at when one of these comes forward to you that it’s connected to the others.”

Town manager Roger Stancil gave a presentation about how council meetings work and how different issues become part of a meeting agenda.

“We could really divide what comes to (the council) in three large categories,” he said.

He said those categories were petitions citizens or council members make, the business of the town and development applications. Stancil said the third was most likely to take up the majority of the council’s time.

After presentations were finished, council members discussed what issues they wanted to talk about in future work sessions.

“I think the topic of affordable housing is so manifold that I would like to see us engage on a series of work sessions on affordable housing,” said councilwoman Sally Greene.

Other issues included student housing and public housing.

Hemminger said if there was an issue a member of the public wanted the council to discuss in their work sessions, suggestions could be made to council members via email, which can be found on the town website.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/chapel-hill-town-council-meets-for-first-time-in-2016

New Chapel Hill Mayor Hemminger Looks Ahead To 2016

It was one of the biggest local stories of the year: Pam Hemminger, last seen losing a bid for reelection as county commissioner three years ago, returning to the political scene and upsetting incumbent Mark Kleinschmidt to become Chapel Hill’s new mayor.

Hemminger’s been on the job for a couple weeks now, after the official swearing-in ceremony earlier this month. On Thursday she joined Aaron Keck on WCHL for a discussion about the initial learning curve, what she’s experienced in her first few days, and what’s on the town’s agenda for 2016 – including continuing development talks, new procedures to improve transparency and get residents involved in town government, and an initiative to help kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch during the school year stay nourished over the summer. (Also, pickleball.)

Listen to their conversation.

http://chapelboro.com/featured/new-chapel-hill-mayor-hemminger-looks-ahead-to-2016

How Chapel Hill’s New Town Council Can Prove It’s Listening to the People

With Chapel Hill’s newly elected mayor and town council members now in office, remember how several challenger candidates back during this fall’s election claimed that the former mayor and council members weren’t listening to the people?

In contrast, some folks felt that those candidates simply failed to comprehend the difference between being heard and getting their way, or that they didn’t like the fact that their like-minded constituents weren’t calling the shots as they did back in the olden days.

Understandably, those candidates and their supporters bristle at those cynical notions.

So now that several of those challengers are elected officials, it’s their time to prove their naysayers wrong: If our newly-elected mayor and council members are really interested in hearing the people—all the people—it’s time they lead the charge to expand the ways Chapel Hill’s town government solicits our resident’s feedback.

Right now, the primary way you, as a resident, can make sure the town council hears your opinion is to appear in person at a public hearing.  Here’s how it works:  You go to a town council meeting at Town Hall at 7:00 P.M. and sit there until well past 11:00 P.M. on many evenings.  Then, when they eventually call your name, you have three minutes to give a speech on the issue under discussion.

By relying almost exclusively on this in-person public hearing system to solicit residents’ feedback, our mayor and town council don’t merely miss out on residents who don’t consider spending the evening watching town council meetings in person less compelling than anything on Netflix.  They are also systematically shutting out many segments of our town from the conversation, including parents with young children, nurses working second shift, students with evening work study jobs, and many others in our community who are simply not able to spend an entire evening in person at town hall, no matter how important the issue may be to them personally.  In an era when you can facetime Japan on your iPhone, relying exclusively on the in-person public hearing is antiquated and guarantees only a small number of our residents will have the opportunity to participate in the discussion of important local issues.

If our newly elected mayor and council members are genuinely interested in listening to the wide variety of people who call Chapel Hill home, not just those residents who agree with their agenda, creating real opportunities for residents to join the conversation beyond the in-person public hearing is the perfect way to prove it.  It would also leave a powerful and progressive legacy that would serve our community long after this council term has ended.

If, however, Chapel Hill’s elected officials choose instead to continue to rely primarily on the public hearing for public engagement, our elected officials are also choosing to intentionally limit their listening to those residents who have an entire evening to spend with them at town hall, undermining their promise to listen to the people.

I encourage town leaders to choose the inclusive option.

By Matt Bailey

 

 

 

http://chapelboro.com/columns/the-commentators/how-chapel-hills-new-town-council-can-prove-its-listening-to-the-people

Town Council Approves Building AC Hotel On Rosemary Street

The Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously approved a special use permit, which allows construction to begin on the AC Hotel by Marriott, which  will be located on the corner of Church and Rosemary Street.

“We feel like this project is a good fit for where the Town of Chapel Hill envisions itself going,” said Dennis Mitchell of OTO Development. “It’s a walkable to location to the Town of Chapel Hill.”

The hotel will be four stories, with 123 rooms and nearly 70,000 square feet of space. It will include an underground parking lot, which will be able to hold 111 vehicles.

“As a next-door neighbor, if you have to live with a four-story development, this is a good fit for us as we imagine what West Rosemary St. might be,” said Fran Gualtieri, owner of La Residence.

Mitchell said the hotel will also be beneficial residents, even if they do not stay at the hotel.

“The lobby is open and accessible to the public,” he said. “It has a small bar and a small tapas-style F and B program. We encourage the public to come in, but it’s not meant to be a full meal or a full bar.”

Construction of the hotel is supposed to begin before 2017.

http://chapelboro.com/news/business/town-council-approves-building-ac-hotel-on-rosemary-street

5 to 4 Votes Are Healthy For Chapel Hill

Raleigh Mann

Raleigh Mann

Before moving to Chapel Hill 38 years ago, I was a newspaper reporter in south Florida.

Have you driven there lately?

The weather is still great, but the beauty is harder to find.  Over-development squashed it years ago.

But, I learned a lot as a covered the deliberations of those city leaders who struggled to deal with developers who saw dollar signs on every empty lot.

“I’d never want to be in their shoes,” I told myself.

It’s a thankless job.

We all owe a large debt of thanks to those who have served Chapel Hill for years, but who lost their seats in this past election.

It is a tough job.

Why do people run for public office?

Well, many reasons.  But, if we read the campaign websites of those who recently got elected to Chapel Hill’s Town Council, it’s clear why our local election turned out as it did.

Chapel Hill residents desperately want their voices heard.  Some of us have the quaint idea that council members who represent us should actually listen to and consider our concerns.

Mayor-elect Pam Hemminger said that too often the mayor and council dismissed residents with legitimate concerns as anti-development or afraid of change.  Thoughtful input for task forces and advisory boards is ignored.

New council member Jessica Anderson wants to promote smart development by listening to residents and advisory boards and prioritizing the interest of local residents over those of developers and investors.

Nancy Oates wants to restore trust and accountability.  And I quote her, “So all of us who care about Chapel Hill can live our lives without having to worry about what council members are doing to our town.”

Michael Parker says that he wants to insure that our town government works for and is responsive to the needs of all its residents.

Donna Bell, the only incumbent voters returned to the council. is proud of her work to develop more affordable housing in Chapel Hill.

Don’t expect these new council members to take over the castle exactly, but you can bet that their voices, and maybe ours too, will be heard.

We’ll see more 5 to 4 votes and that’s healthy.

 

Raleigh Mann

 

http://chapelboro.com/columns/the-commentators/5-to-4-votes-are-healthy-for-chapel-hill

In 2015 Election, Chapel Hill Goes “Beyond Unitary Democracy”

Oh what a difference two years makes.

Back in 2013, municipal elections were nice. Candidates spoke to each other, supported each other, considered each other’s views. The tone was friendly. You’d see the candidates smiling and laughing with each other at the polling sites, even as they competed for the same votes. (Here’s the photographic proof, with Loren Hintz and George Cianciolo.) The niceness was everywhere. Just before Election Day I even posted this piece on Chapelboro, challenging the local candidates to stop being so sweet to each other and start playing some friggin’ hardball.

But I was being sarcastic, y’all. I was being sarcastic!

Fast forward to 2015, and…well, things were a little different. It got petty. It got snippy. There was actual bitterness. How bad did it get? Depends who you ask. Some candidates were nonchalant about it, but I saw others who were just about ready to be done with politics altogether. I heard some people say this was pretty tame in the grand scheme of things, but I heard others say they hadn’t seen anything like this anywhere. Either way, though, Chapel Hill hasn’t seen a local election this nasty in a long, long time.

What the hell happened?

Now, folks who’ve been around a while say this isn’t the first time we’ve seen an election like this in Chapel Hill. In fact it happens pretty regularly, every 10 or 15 years or so.

But why? Forget for a second about the specific issues that divided people this year. More abstractly: why do these divisions occur in the first place? Why do they only bubble up every so often? And why does it seem to get so bitter when they do?

We were all nicey-nice in 2013. How did it get so contentious in just two years?

Here’s one answer: what if the two are connected? What if it got so heated this year not in spite of the fact that we’d been so nice before, but precisely because we’d been so nice before?

This is why…

———————-

When we think about democracy, more often than not, we think of it as a struggle between opposing sides. Parties and candidates compete against each other for votes, you vote for whichever side best represents your interests, and everything gets hashed out in the legislature as all the different groups fight for control. “Interest-group democracy,” it’s called, and we do it this way on purpose. It goes back to James Madison’s theory (in Federalist 10) of how to keep the government from turning tyrannical. The trick, he said, is to keep a single group (or “faction”) from taking over – and the way to do that is to build a diverse society with many factions, all of them constantly in competition, each of them checking the power of the others.

It’s ingenious. But it’s not enough. If we’re all just competing against each other, then what’s the point of sharing a government in the first place? You can’t sustain a community without something that unites people together, a common interest that everyone works toward. And for that, you need a government that’s built on something more than conflict. You also need government to be a place where people come together to work out the best way to reach their common goals. Government can’t just be “adversarial” – it has to be “consensual” too.

The political scientist Jane Mansbridge wrote about this in a book called “Beyond Adversary Democracy.” When we think about politics, she said, we typically think about institutions like Congress, where it’s all about the power struggle and there’s almost no effort to reach “genuine unanimity.” (There’s compromise, true, but that’s not the same thing as unanimity – that’s just different factions making deals with each other in order to maximize their own interests.)

But what if we go down a level? What if we look at small towns instead? Or local organizations? Or businesses where the workers make decisions collectively? There, Mansbridge said, you’ll find not “adversary” democracy, but “unitary” democracy. Rather than different factions competing with each other, you’ll find a single, un-divided group of people, united by their shared interests, coming together as a community to identify their goals and agree on the best course of action.

To illustrate this, Mansbridge visited a small town in Vermont. (She called it “Selby” in the book – not its real name.) Selby makes all its big decisions in one giant annual town meeting: everyone’s invited to gather together in a big room and talk, and talk, and talk, until they agree upon a course of action, one agenda item at a time.

The underlying assumption (says Mansbridge) is that all the folks in Selby share the same interest. There’s no need to make sure all the factions are represented, because everyone’s on the same side – all the town has to do is get people together and talk it out. Not everybody shows up to the meeting, of course, and some people are more influential than others – but that isn’t necessarily a problem, because everybody’s working toward the same goal regardless. (And in fact, Mansbridge says, the townsfolk actually become more likely to share interests in common because they start by assuming shared interests. It makes them more likely to emphathize with each other and to think first about “the good of the whole,” even if they have to sacrifice their individual interests to do it.)

It all sounds very idyllic.

But it’s not perfect either.

For one thing: even though it’s called a “consensual” democracy, Mansbridge says debates can actually get more heated and passionate than they do in an “adversarial” system. Which actually makes sense if you think about it. Adversarial systems are based on conflict, but the actual decisions get made pretty mathematically: add up everybody’s interest and divide by the whole, and there’s your compromise. It’s all very un-emotional. You’re not trying to persuade each other, because you’ve already agreed to disagree.

But in a consensual system, the goal is total agreement. Everyone supposedly shares the same interest, so if there’s disagreement, you don’t just split the difference – you talk it out until you agree.

We’ve all been in those conversations. How do they usually go?

Well, they get heated. They get emotional. People get angry at each other. Very angry.

And that’s what happens even in a Mayberry-esque town like Selby, where everyone is friends with everyone else. “(One man) acquires a splitting headache,” writes Mansbridge. “An older man claims he stopped going because he is afraid for his heart. A man in the next town tells how his hands shake for hours after the meeting. Altogether more than a quarter of the people I talked to suggested without prompting that the conflictual character of the town meeting in some way upset them.”

How does a community deal with this? How do we ease tension, when we’re trying to work through a passionate difference of opinion?

Well, how do you do it?

We all have the same basic strategies. First we remind ourselves of our friendship, our common bonds. We refer to each other by our first names. Make it informal. We break the tension by joking with each other, especially when things get really intense. And worse comes to worst, we can just avoid having the conversation at all. That way at least we’re not arguing in public.

Sounds familiar, right?

That’s how it happens in Selby. In the meeting, they refer to each other by their first names. They crack jokes. And most importantly, the biggest decisions – the ones that are most likely to generate the biggest fights – are not made in public. Not really. Town leaders meet ahead of time, Mansbridge says, and work it out in advance – so while the official vote gets taken in the meeting, the consensus has already been reached in private. (When Selby had to appoint a selectman, for instance: several prominent people were nominated, but nearly all of them declined the nomination, and the final vote was almost unanimous. But the whole thing was a show: the ‘winner’ had been selected and the other ‘candidates’ had already agreed not to run before the meeting even started.)

These methods are important. They’re good. They ease tension. They keep the peace. And this consensual system has real advantages. It encourages everyone to get involved. It inspires people to think about the community and set their own interest to the side.

But…

There’s an obvious downside too. If the goal is to preserve a spirit of consensus, then real differences of opinion can get suppressed. If the big decisions are made by elites, other people get shut out. “If you don’t say what they want to hear you’re not even acknowledged,” said one Selby resident. (Didn’t CHALT’s supporters say exactly the same thing?)

And there’s more: when real differences of interest arise, a consensual system doesn’t have a way to address it. Adversarial governments can just compromise, but when you don’t allow your government to act without total consensus, you often end up with “deadlock” – or worse, “social coercion.” (We know this from U.S. History class. Remember what we learned about the Articles of Confederation? They failed, because they required every single state to agree before the federal government could do anything at all. Total deadlock. And if it’s “social coercion” you want – go look up the history of how the U.S. Constitution got ratified. Fascinating stuff.)

Now, Mansbridge likes consensual democracy. Her ultimate point is that we’re too adversarial – that we ought to be making more decisions locally, in small communities with shared interests, in institutions that seek consensus around a common good. (Let’s be more like Chapel Hill than Washington, in other words.)

But she also said this, by way of warning:

“In a town meeting, each decision to resolve a matter beforehand to avoid hurt feelings becomes simultaneously a decision to withhold information from those who need it most…

“The final and major weakness of the consensual system is ‘people being bullied into consensus’ and ‘just kind of going along with it.'”

And even in the idyllic little New England town of Selby, that weakness eventually turns into open conflict, after years and years where everyone seems to be on the same page.

———————-

Okay, back to Chapel Hill.

Did the same thing happen here?

We pride ourselves on being a politically active, passionate town. We all know the line. “For every three people in Chapel Hill, there are four opinions!” Ha ha.

But for all our talk about valuing differences of opinion, we’ve put an awfully high value on consensus.

Look at our government structure, for instance. Many cities divide themselves into districts or wards and elect separate representatives from each. Not here. All our town council members are elected at large. Every member represents the whole community – the common interest. Our system makes no effort to guarantee that different interests are represented, because our system assumes that different interests do not exist. There is one shared interest, one common good for all. That’s it.

Better yet, look at “Chapel Hill 2020,” the massive town-wide project in 2011 and 2012 to develop a new comprehensive plan. Chapel Hill 2020 was conceived as a giant New England-style town meeting: invite literally everyone in town to come together and talk…and talk…and talk…until gradually we reach a consensus, a plan that everyone had a part in shaping and that everyone can get behind. And we did it! Thousands of people came together. Everybody had their say. And the Town Council approved it. Unanimously, of course.

And look at the election of 2013. Nine candidates for Town Council, and they mostly agreed on everything. The mayor was running unopposed. The most obvious candidates to challenge him had all declined to run. The incumbents were all but guaranteed reelection. Loren Hintz and George Cianciolo knew they were fighting for one open seat on the Council – but there they are, smiling and joking with each other three days before the election. And why not? There was nothing at stake. Loren and George (first names, please!) had very similar visions for Chapel Hill. They had their differences, but they represented the same “common interest.” George won the election, as it turned out. But suppose it had been Loren. Would the Town Council have acted much differently in the last two years? Would it have prioritized different things, made different decisions? How often has George been the swing vote on a 5-4 Council decision? How often would Loren have gone the other way?

What this is, is democracy by consensus. It’s informal, it’s friendly, it’s participatory, and yes, it’s often unanimous. Chapel Hill has a terrific system of consensual democracy. (Look no further than “Chapel Hill 2020.”) And it works very well – assuming we all share a common interest. The system depends on that assumption.

What if the assumption is wrong?

Writing in 1980, Jane Mansbridge argued that consensus democracy is a fine thing and worth fighting for – but it doesn’t know how to handle real conflicts of interest. Sometimes it suppresses opinions in order to preserve the facade of unanimity. James Madison, writing in 1787, said the same thing. And both of them, especially Mansbridge, wrote that consensus becomes harder and harder to maintain as your community becomes larger. It’s a very real danger.

Suppose you represent a competing interest here in Chapel Hill, one that goes against the “consensus.” You’re probably going to be frustrated, right? Your town leaders all vote the same way, and gosh, they’re awfully friendly with each other. The big decisions all seem to get made behind closed doors. You’re invited to participate, but you represent conflict in a system that’s not really designed to handle it. You don’t get shut down or hushed up, not really, but it might feel that way. And Chapel Hill 2020 actually makes the feeling worse: the town goes out of its way to invite you to the table, then falls back on the same old consensus anyway. It probably felt like a betrayal.

What we saw in 2015 was a bubbling over: the inevitable downside of having a consensus-based democracy in a community with adversarial interests. “When real conflicts of interest arose,” Mansbridge wrote of Selby, “people held back their anger until they were about to explode.”

2015 was the explosion. And sooner or later it’ll probably happen again.

After all, it’s happened before. Every 10 or 15 years or so, they say, Chapel Hill has an election like this. Maybe not quite this bitter, but like this. Consensus, consensus, consensus for a decade or more, then a sudden upswell of discontent. It always seems to come out of nowhere. People get caught off guard. The election happens. There are surprises. Big changes. For a time. Then, gradually, the anger subsides. Things settle down. The consensus reasserts itself. It’s how the system works.

These heated elections we have every so often? This is the cost of consensual democracy.

Should we make changes? Jane Mansbridge would probably say so. “To maintain its legitimacy,” she wrote, “a democracy must have both a unitary and an adversary face.” In other words, rather than seeking only consensus and thinking of conflict as a bad thing to be avoided, we ought to recognize that there are conflicts of interest in our community and try to accommodate them in our government.

And there are things we could theoretically do. We could switch to a district system for Town Council representation, for instance. We could not invite the whole town to write our next comprehensive plan.

But that’d be giving up all hope of finding a common interest. And that’s an awfully pessimistic move. It’s the sort of move you only make when you admit your community isn’t a little village anymore.

And personally, hey, I like Chapel Hill the way it is. I like our consensual system. I like the friendliness. I like the fact that we believe in a common good, and I like the fact that our town government actually tries to identify it and realize it. It puts us way up on Raleigh and Washington.

But this is the price we pay for consensus. We should remember that. Our system isn’t perfect. There are downsides. People feel excluded. Eventually there is anger. The anger becomes a movement. Heated elections take place. Changes come.

Mansbridge says this sort of thing tends to happen wherever you have a “unitary” democracy. It happened in Selby. It happened in Chapel Hill. Carrboro, y’all are on notice.

Still, there’s nothing saying it has to get to that point. We can do better. This is a work in progress. It ought to be. We’re Chapel Hill. We love works in progress. We’re progress-ive.

Will we do better? Will 2015 be the last time Chapel Hill sees an election like this?

Nah. Probably not.

But it’s worth the effort, nonetheless.

 

http://chapelboro.com/columns/in-2015-election-chapel-hill-goes-beyond-unitary-democracy