Just the Facts

Do you remember the TV series Dragnet that featured Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday?  Many people associate the Los Angeles cop with his famous opening line, “My name is Friday, — I carry a badge.”  Others may associate him with the celebrated catchphrase, “Just the facts, ma’am.”  As much as it has been repeated, copied, and even parodied, it in fact was never actually uttered by Joe Friday. The closest lines were, “All we want are the facts, ma’am,” and “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”

So much for facts!  I would bet good money that if you asked people who know the show what phase they associate with Dragnet, more often than not you would get “Just the facts, ma’am” as the answer.  I would argue that the experiment demonstrates what we already understand: we know what we believe and what we believe are the facts!

Just what are facts?  Derived from the Latin factum, the dictionary tells us that facts have the quality of being actual, that they are something that have actual existence, they are an actual occurrence, and facts are a piece of information presented as having objective reality.  Then why do we have so many people offering different versions of the facts?

Just watch TV, listen to radio, or read printed media.  Each are replete with examples of people in the political sphere at all levels claiming that their statements are factually correct and the other person is bending the truth, not being honest, or even just flat lying!  Even at the local level, we had a case at a recent Town Council meeting where a citizen made a statement where he presented what he claimed were “the fact,” only to have the Town Attorney reply that the citizen had his facts wrong. Who had the “right” facts?  How are we to know?

So without personal expertise, what are we to do?  I’ve even noticed that when one of the fact-check sites or newspaper columns provides evidence that a politician’s statement was not factual, it doesn’t deter them in the least; they keep making the statement.  Maybe they do that because they understand something really important about us:  we aren’t really that interested in contesting the facts we hear because we tend to want to accept the facts we like and those uttered by “our” guy or gal.

Will we ever come to a point where we demand more from those courting our support and actually hold them accountable for their statements?  Will we demand that their statements of facts include supporting data to prove their validity?  I don’t think so.  I think we will continue as we have in the past.  When we are faced with two sets of contradictory facts, we will choose the one we like and the one uttered by the person we like!

Too cynical?  No, not cynical, just stating the facts!  What do your facts lead you to believe?


Is There a Disconnect Here?

I wasn’t at Town Hall on Monday, February 20th but I watched the proceedings from the comfort of home.  Too bad what I heard didn’t make me very comfortable.  I appreciated the emotional and heartfelt comments from those who want the Town of Chapel Hill to be the first jurisdiction in North Carolina to ban the use of cell phones while driving.  I get that driving while distracted is not conducive to the safe operation of a moving vehicle, and I also get that unsafe driving puts people at risk.

What I don’t get is how the proposed ordinance with various loophole exceptions solves the problem.  As a secondary offense, a police officer can only cite you for cell phone use if you are stopped for some other reason.  If that’s the objective, the fine of $25 isn’t much of a deterrent.  How will officers know if you were using a hands-free device?  I guess the officer can say your lips were moving, but do we want to place our officers in that position?  The last thing we need is an ordinance that is overly difficult to enforce.  

Moreover, we aren’t even sure that the proposed ordinance is legal.  I didn’t feel very reassured when I heard our Town Attorney say that he believed it could withstand a court challenge.  Of course that might mean we will have to spend money on another court case and surely, we have better things to do with our money.  Education is the key so let’s educate about all driving distractions and not pass an ineffective ordinance just to be able to brag that we were first.  Is there a disconnect here?  

Postscript:  Some think that the General Assembly has failed to pass legislation banning the use of cell phones because they lack political courage.  Are there other explanations that we might consider?  I think that some understand what this would mean for those who would have to enforce it.  Our police officers deserve better and we should spend our energy finding ways to enhance our educational efforts.  Can we really make all of the things people do in their cars that are distractions to safe diving a violation of the law?


Honoring Those Who Served and Sacrificed

At 11 minutes after 11am on the 11the day of the 11th month of this year, 2011, I was sitting at the UNC Veterans Memorial adjacent to Memorial Hall. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ROTC programs joined together to present their annual Veterans Day tribute. The theme this year was “Honoring All Who Served.” As the cadets and midshipmen from the Army, Navy and Air Force programs stood in their formation ignoring the cool wind blowing all around, a crowd of veterans, university employees, local citizens, campus students, and school kids bore witness to the honor and respect that they had for the day.
At 11:11am, the Bell Tower rang out 11 bells of tribute to commemorate the 1918 armistice that ended the “war to end all wars.” The Professor of Naval Science, Captain Douglass Wright, USN, delivered remarks about the meaning of Veterans Day and called to everyone’s attention those from UNC who served in uniform, and in some cases, paid the ultimate price. He also recognized veterans in the audience from the WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Post-Vietnam eras. Midshipman Third Class Bryan Baliff, who opened the ceremony by playing the National Anthem, delivered a beautiful rendition of Taps and the program ended with the playing of each service song.
As I looked at the young women and men standing in formation in their dress uniforms, I could only wonder what the future held for them. Where will they serve? What sacrifices will they bear? What new technologies will we have for them? All of these questions, important as they are, were not things I thought much about some 47 years ago when I joined Army ROTC. It also struck me that some of those standing there in the formation had parents who weren’t even born when I first stood in a similar formation. These women and men standing in formation were some of our “best and brightest” and had made a choice to pursue military service by obtaining a commission through one of the ROTC programs.
We can only hope that other young men and women will continue to elect to serve our country in uniform. Given what we see facing today’s veterans, it might not be a choice a lot of or young people might continue to make in the future. They know that we have unemployed veterans, homeless veterans, and veterans facing tremendous medical challenges. It is only right that they would wonder how they might fare when they become veterans.
George Washington told us many years ago “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.” So I ask you, are we sending our young people the right message about how we as a nation, a state, a county, and town treat our veterans? Are we taking care of those who need help? Are we showing them our appreciation?
I ask all in our community who enjoy the freedoms and safety provided by our currently serving troops and our future veterans, to consider the demands and sacrifices placed on our military members and their families. We have asked them to shoulder enormous demands that have no counterpart in civilian employment.  On Veteran’s Day and every day, honor those now serving, the veterans who have served, and all of their families for their patriotism and sacrifices for the common good.  Demand that our elected leaders at every level of government take proper care of our veterans.
What do you say?

What Will You Elect To Do This Election?

Next Tuesday, November 8th is Election Day 2011. We have municipal offices on the ballot, the School Board, and a referendum to raise the sales and use tax by a quarter cent. Clearly, these are important decisions before us and our participation is important. But everyone just doesn’t participate.
In the 2009 municipal elections, we had just under a 17% turnout. That was nearly 12,000 voters out of some 70,000 potential voters. We also elected Town, Council Board of Alderman, and School Board candidates in that election and the last two years have shown that it does matter who makes decisions for all of us. I often wonder if those who are unhappy about a decision made by our elected officials voted, and if not, will they vote in the next election.
There are varieties of opinions about voting in our country. Some, for example, believe that we should make significant efforts to get people registered and out to vote. Others believe that we shouldn’t worry about all of the non-voters because only those who committed, informed and engaged in the process should vote anyway. It is interesting that as much as we proclaim what a great participatory democracy we are, we as a nation typically have a fairly low voting rate compared to other nations.
I think we should encourage people to become familiar with the issues, study the candidates, and make informed choices as voters. We have more than a few candidate forums. We receive mailers, we see letters to the editor in our papers, and we have several organizational endorsements. With a little effort, it is not that difficult to be an informed voter.  And there is still time to do this.
As of November 1st, almost 2,500 citizens have already voted early, and that’s encouraging. We have a few more days of early voting, including Saturday the 5th. When added to those who vote on Election Day, maybe we might have a higher turnout than we did in 2009. Some who elect not to participate may not think this election is a big deal but I certainly do.
This election will give us the people we will ask to make some really important decisions in our towns and for our schools. In Chapel Hill for example, the next Council will approve a new comprehensive plan. With the economic situation that we face, both town bodies will have to raise taxes to keep providing the current level of services or make some priority decisions that will reduce some services. We might also see them doing both things, but whatever happens, there will be citizen pushback. Every line in the budget has supporters who will fight to keep it there, but since something will have to give, whose line will change?
The same is true for the School Board. They will also have to face some resource realities while trying to maintain the schools citizens say they want. We need another elementary school and the County doesn’t seem to have the money. Without that new school, we might trigger the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (SAPFO) and thus bring development projects to a halt. They will also face the challenge of deciding what their funding priorities will be and how to protect and enhance our reputation for educational excellence.
Yes, elections do matter and the more who contribute to the outcome, the better it will be for our community. Please get informed and vote!
That’s my opinion, what’s yours?

Rolling With the Meals (ON Wheels)!

Back in April, I did a special edition of  Who’s Talking with Stacey Yusko, the Director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Meals on Wheels programImagine my surprise when earlier this month she invited me to participate in their “Big Wheels Drive Meals on Wheels” event. So today, I had the opportunity to accompany two volunteers on their regular route and deliver meals to 11 homebound program participants in our community.
What an experience! I linked up with Pam Drake and Mary Reeve at Binkley Baptist Church and loaded up the meals for the Wednesday stops on Route #1. We had Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and okra, rolls, fruit, cookies, juice and milk, all tailored to the participant’s preferences. There were also special items for those who were diabetic. It not only looked tasty but the packaging was very functional.
We loaded the coolers into Pam’s car and started out on our route. I asked Pam how long she had been a volunteer and she said since 1979. Our program in Chapel-Carrboro is celebrating its 35th anniversary, so Pam is goes almost back to the beginning. Mary indicated she had been a volunteer for about four years and that she and Pam have been partners for almost three. When Pam can’t make it Mary recruits her husband Roscoe.
As we drove from house to house, the route notebook had all of the important information we needed and included special instructions. From the first house on, my reaction was how amazing the interaction was between the volunteers and participants. I was introduced to each, and Mary asked them how they were doing, and engaged in unhurried small talk with those she knew desired it. There were hugs and pats and the smiles were just amazing. We had one participant who was not home and when we returned to Binkley, Pam told Stacey so that she could make a follow up phone call, just to make sure everything was OK.
These volunteers are special. They are not just delivering meals, but a lot of human kindness too. There are about 100 volunteers working nine routes, and some do more than one day a week. The nine routes cover over 800 miles each week and the volunteers use their own vehicles to make the deliveries. I also learned that this is an every weekday operation, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. The meals are prepared at K&W Cafeteria and Nantucket Café and each day, homemade desserts are part of the meals.
As our Meal on Wheels program receives no Federal or state funding, they are able to be flexible on the criteria for receiving a meal. They try to include all with a need, such as a disability or health issue, who are not able to prepare a meal, and it is regardless of age. Participants only pay fees based on their ability.
My time with Pam and Mary flew by and after we unloaded the coolers and said our goodbyes, I drove away reflecting on how blessed we are to have programs like Meals on Wheels and the special volunteers who make them what they are. It was so clear how much the contact with a volunteer meant to the people I met today. It was also significant that the volunteers knew the habits of the participants and could look for things that might be out of the ordinary. We all know good, wholesome food is always a special treat, but being a blessing to others is a treat that’s really, really special.

Your thoghts?


If You Tell Them, They Will Come!

Town leaders and the planning team for “Chapel Hill 2020” went to amazing lengths to get the word out that all citizens were invited to come to East Chapel Hill High School on Tuesday, September 27th, to participate in the first sessions to help develop a new comprehensive plan. Getting that word out included a variety of methods – mail, email, news articles, radio, phone calls, contacts with specific groups and organizations, and person-to-person, just to name some.
It worked! The thought that “wouldn’t it be great if 200 came” actually resulted in some 400 coming out to provide their vision for Chapel Hill’s future. They also identified a variety of themes that would help realize their vision. I had the opportunity to facilitate one of the many table discussions, and if all were like mine, everyone was enthusiastic, respectful and focused on the task.
By any measure, this first step of “Chapel Hill 2020 – Our Town, Our Vision,” was a success because so many from all over the community came to help shape our future. But what about those who, in spite of all of the efforts made, still didn’t know about the opportunity to be part of this? This is the information age, isn’t it?  I guess we might assume that when you push information out, magically, it hits the target. Just not the case!
It’s my opinion that we do have a problem with getting information to all of our citizens, and it’s not because of a lack of trying. Some do not read newspapers or follow local news on the radio or TV. Some do not use the computer, so they may not get the information that the Town goes to great lengths to make available. And some do not interact with people who might be in a position to bring some of the critical and timely information to their attention.
So what’s the solution? What else can we do to get the word out in a timely and efficient way? I’ve had several conversations with people lately who had nothing for me when I asked them my question. Matter of fact, one person told me in a pretty blunt way that the Town just can’t do much more than they are doing to help keep people informed. He went on to say that at some point, people have to assume some personal responsibility for keeping themselves informed.
I continue to  ponder this because this is important and I’m just optimistic enough to believe we can come up with ideas. As we move along developing our comprehensive plan, just to cite one example, getting information out to people is critical. So bottom line, if we transmit all of this critical information, can we increase the number of citizens in a position to receive? 
What ideas do you have to help get the word out as broadly as possible? Do you believe that some are just not willing to expend the effort to be informed? There must be some ideas and possible solutions out there! Please leave your comments.

Building More Than Homes

It was another special Sunday in our community and I witnessed another amazing event. On September 18th more than 200 people gathered on the grass at the Habitat for Humanity of Orange County’s Phoenix Place to enjoy a lunch and dedicate the 10 homes built in a program called “Build A Block.” So many things about this project were just extraordinary, but here’s what stood out to me.
First, the idea to do this came from UNC student Megan Jones who led the Habitat Chapter at UNC during the planning and execution phases. The chapter typically built two houses a year, but when she learned that there were many UNC families applying for Habitat homes who might not receive one, she proposed bringing several schools and departments together to build an entire block of 10 homes.
She ran her idea by Patti Thorp, who described herself as “the cheerleader,” and with contagious enthusiasm and excitement, she helped the project idea come to life. Not only was there no UNC money used, but the group came up with creative ways to raise the $350,000required to build the10 homes. They also were able to encourage more than 1400 members of the UNC community to work some 7,052 hours alongside the future homeowners. In the Habitat model, homeowners are asked to contribute the required number of “sweat equity” hours to the program. Speakers indicated that those who worked on the project came together on Saturdays as strangers but left as friends.

How do you feel about this accomplishment?

More than just building bonds while building homes, participants understood that they were helping fellow members of the UNC family to own a home. New homeowner Latesha Foushee indicated that this project added so much to her life and would allow her family to live in a quality home in a safe neighborhood. In speaking for all of the new homeowners, she indicated that the experience was a true blessing.
Another special thing about Sunday was that Jonathan Reckford, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity and a UNC alumnus, attended the event and did the formal dedication. He also expressed pride in the fact the UNC Habitat club set a new standard for campus chapters, as this was the largest Habitat project undertaken by any university club in the country. Thus, it’s no surprise that UNC’s Habitat Club received the award for being the top campus chapter in the nation.  As Reckford quipped, UNC is the “University of National Champions.”
I have to believe that all in attendance, from the community members to the new home-owning families, had to feel the specialness of the event. Each of the sponsoring schools and departments received Habitat for Humanity hammers as a token of appreciation, presented by students Franklin Niblock, co-chair of the UNC Habitat Club, and Lauren Blanchet, co-chair of the UNC Build a Block project. Both Patti and Holden Thorp also assisted with the presentations. 
Yes, it was a special day; a day to remember the work of our great students, staff and faculty, and remember how dreams and visions can do so much good for others. The hammers are great reminders of what this new group of friends “hammered” out over the weeks they spent on the project. They are also particularly special because they symbolize that while they used hammers to “Build A Block,” they actually built something much, much more than homes.

Thank You!

On Sunday, September 11, we had an amazing tribute in our town to mourn and remember those who perished because of the attacks and honor those who risked their lives to save others. Citizens of Chapel Hill have every reason to be proud that we planned and conducted such a ceremony, so I would like to say thank you. 
Thank you to the leaders of our fire and police departments. Thank you to the members of the honor guard. Thank you to Professional Firefighters’ Associationfor proposing that we have the event. Thank you to all of the police officers and firefighters who were there. Thank you to the UNC Clef Hangers for their music. Thank you to all who provided the support for the ceremony. Thank you to all of the speakers who said just the right things for the occasion.
Last but not least, thank you to the members of our community of all ages who were there Sunday morning. I’m not sure if the planners had any idea how many would attend, but everyone I talked to was impressed with the amazing turnout. The messages, music, and the delicious and plentiful refreshments fed all of us who attended Sunday morning. 
But most important, we were provided an amazing way to publically stand with friends and neighbors at the Fire Place in Meadowmont  to reflect on those horrific attacks 10 years ago and honor the goodness of so many who did extraordinary things after the attacks.  The loss, sacrifice, courage, and commitment of so many demands that we keep having such ceremonies to mourn and remember.
Let’s never forget either!



Remembering and Hoping

Significant events in our country generate significant reactions. Look at the attack on Pearl Harbor, dropping the atom bomb, the Kennedy assassination, and the Challenger explosion as examples of significant events that we as a society remember in various ways. On Sunday, September 11, 2011, we as a nation and others around the world will take time to remember the horrific attacks that occurred that day.
There will be ceremonies of all sorts, memorials dedicated, special religious and civic services of prayer and remembrance, TV specials, service projects, academic programs and a host of other events to reflect on the events of that day, mourn the victims who lost their lives, and honor the heroes who emerged. And it’s no surprise that none of this happens without controversy, criticism, or protests. From the design of memorials to those included or excluded on a program, from attempts to gain a commercial advantage from the tragedy to very public disputes over benefits, we are reminded once again that even remembering tragic events are capable of driving a wedge between us.
Wedges aside, what I still remember most about that Tuesday morning 10 years ago was my cycle of reactions. As I sat glued to the TV, I, like so many others, was in shock. I simply refused to believe what I was seeing on the screen. The reporting as the morning passed also proved that a principal I learned many years ago was still operative – “FRUE” – or First Reports Usually Erroneous.  We learned about the attack on the Pentagon and we were shocked again.  Later we learned about what happened on the plane over Pennsylvania and the shock only intensified. Eventually we had more accurate information and the weight of what did happen engulfed us.
Yet, it didn’t take long before denial kicked in. This just couldn’t happen in America and so many of us just wanted to believe that it didn’t. In spite of what I heard on every TV station, all of the cable shows, the Internet, phone calls from friends, and face-to-face conversations, denial was the reaction. Our nation was attacked; our way of life was put at risk. Thousands were killed, how could that happen? Then came the anger.
The anger, strong as it was, seemed to give way to a more positive outcome because we experienced people come together. Most Americans seemed to share that anger over what happened to us, but the dominant emotion became unity. That spirit of unity now stands in stark contrast to what we see happening around us today. It just seems that so many things separate us, we talk past each other, and civility and common ground are in short supply.  
The fact is that today’s anger is a very intense anger and from different sources. I would hope that as we remember what happened to us 10 years ago, we all take time to remember all of those we lost and all of those who placed their lives in danger that day and the days that followed. I would also hope that we spend some sometime reflecting on our many blessings, the things we value as a nation, and what can unite us as a nation again. Otherwise, 9-11 has very little meaning.

Voter-Owned Elections: I’m Just Not A Fan!

I was really happy to see the two-part report on “Voter-Owned Elections” here on Chapelboro.com. We are now in the second election cycle of the test that the North Carolina General Assembly authorized Chapel Hill to conduct during municipal elections.

If you wish to learn about the specifics details of the test program, you can read about the town’s public campaign financing system at this link. But I’m more concerned about what the program’s assumptions and what it means to us in our local elections. First, I think we can all agree that elections have become expensive propositions, but why has that happened? To file for a Chapel Hill position the fee is $5.00. Arguably, all expended funds beyond that requirement are a function of candidate behavior, and especially, candidate competition.

We have had successful candidates in some elections that spent very little so we know it is not mandatory to spend big bucks to win. We also know that those yard/road signs, stickers, newspaper ads, and slick color mailings drive the cost of elections right up there and candidates say all the time that they have to do it because others do it. But why should my tax dollars have to fund a candidate’s completive ambitions?

When we had the Town Council debate on the program before its approval, proponents argued that we needed the VOE program to ensure that “big money,” particularly dollars from that group some in Chapel Hill love to demonize – developers, would not “buy” candidates. It’s interesting that some of the same people who made this argument also argue that the law requiring a photo ID to vote is trying to solve a voter fraud problem that doesn’t exist. When you challenge their contribution assumptions, they are not able to point to an example of where “big money” from outside ever influenced the outcome of a Chapel Hill election.

Seems to me like the argument against the photo IDs (and I support the argument against the photo IDs) cuts just the same for claims of buying candidates by special interests or outside forces. We have no real evidence that this has ever happened in Chapel Hill. Just to say that citizens from the business community support candidates that will represent their interests does not mean anyone is “buying” candidates. It does mean that our system works and voters are expressing their interests. If the VOE program could really control human behavior, then what happened in the 2009 election would not have happened. You may remember that in 2009 a citizen had some cards printed up and mailed to voters telling them whom they should not vote for in the mayoral election. At the last minute, the unnamed citizen registered his PAC to comply with State election laws, so his mailing was legal. Given how close the outcome was, it’s not a stretch to believe that the cards had an impact.

The winning candidate was in the VOE program and the outside of the campaign and, according to the winning candidate, the “uncoordinated expenditure” did not have his approval. But the money spent did not count against the candidate. So even with VOE a single citizen or group of citizens can spend an unlimited amount in a campaign for or against a candidate, just as long as they comply with the election laws.

Last but not least, there’s a problem to me when you limit how much a candidate can spend of their own money and the money contributed by their friends during an election so that more tax dollars are not given to the opponent. We have a pretty low individual contribution limit in Chapel Hill ─ $200, so isn’t that a sufficient control? How far are we willing to go in limiting individual rights? Are we also going to give extra money to offset incumbent advantage? We have spending reports for a reason. If someone doesn’t like how much a candidate spends, or who the candidate accepts money from, then they shouldn’t vote for them.

We can then clearly send a message to candidates about how we feel about their spending and their supporters. Having informed voters, accurate and timely reporting, and letting voters exercise their own judgment will truly make local elections voter owned. What do you think?