CHAPEL HILL – Orange County has seen a great deal of recent political turnover, with a newer, younger generation of legislators and community leaders emerging to replace the old.
But how do those new leaders navigate the political realm? How do they make a difference, in institutions still dominated by older legislators and older ways?
“I walk in, first of all, as a student – a student of the game,” says newly appointed State House Representative Graig Meyer. “How am I going to play this game? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to align myself with? Who do I need to emulate? Who do I need to stay away from?”
First-term Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils agrees, adding that finding one’s place involves not only the need to learn how to play the game – but also the chance to elevate the discourse.
“One of the things that I found myself doing – while not intending, necessarily, to do it – was to come to the role with a kind of posture of wanting to demonstrate how to disagree well,” he says. “I think that, in itself, has value.”
Other young or first-term legislators agree that ‘being the new guy’ also offers a rare opportunity to shake things up.
“I think all of us who are new elected officials have one opportunity, which is to really see how things have been done and to ask questions about why,” says first-term County Commissioner Mark Dorosin. “Why do you do something like this? Why is it like this? And maybe that’s the right way to do it, but you have the opportunity to say, ‘Explain it to me – and in doing so, explain it to the constituents.’”
Fellow first-termer Renee Price agrees. “If I have to say something that’s going to ruffle somebody’s feathers, I’m sorry,” she says. “Well, no, I’m not sorry, really.”
And first-term Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer says she can also take advantage of her status as a demographic outsider as well.
“I’m an immigrant,” she says, “so sometimes I can say things that other people are too embarrassed or have been told all their lives you can’t say in polite company.”
Palmer, Price, Dorosin and Seils all occupy seats on elected boards that serve Orange County alone – so all four can say their own values adhere fairly closely to those of their fellow board members.
Not so Meyer, a Democrat in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. “I just drove back from Raleigh,” he says, “and I was in an education policy hearing…(and) most of the people in the General Assembly don’t know a darn thing about education. And I cannot believe they’re making some of the decisions that they’re making.”
Among other things, he says, those decisions include a continued reluctance to raise teacher pay – and, on Thursday, a task force recommendation to eliminate the Common Core standards.
Those moves and others have left him frustrated, Meyer says – and it can be no less frustrating for new and young officials seeking to make change in Chapel Hill. But despite the frustration, Meyer says it’s possible to be hopeful for the future, simply by looking back to the recent past.
“On the days that I’m mad and angry – and today sitting in chambers was one of the worst days that I’ve had – I tend to think about Terry Sanford and Bill Friday,” he says. “Those gentlemen came out of World War II together…and they decided that they were going to fight racial segregation and build the prosperity of this state based on having a strong public education system.
“And there is no reason why today’s leaders shouldn’t be able to come together around the same goal of building our long-term prosperity on a well-educated populace and the ability to stand up against the continued existence of institutionalized racism and other forms of inequity.”
And it’s that hope that sustains local leaders – young and old and newcomer and veteran alike – as they continue to push for change.
“Change is hard,” says Dorosin. “It’s very frustrating. But, you know, every day you start to push the rock up the hill – and you hope that today, it gets all the way to the top.”
And in the end, Renee Price says, that activism pays off in its impact on people.
“There’s something very interesting that happens, I think every single time I’ve had a meeting (where) I’ve been frustrated,” she says. “The next day someone will call me up, or they’ll see me in the grocery store, and they’ll just say ‘thank you.’
“And you know…it makes it worth it.”
Dorosin, Price, Meyer, Seils and Palmer made those comments in the “Tomorrow’s Newsmakers” panel of the 2014 WCHL Community Forum.http://chapelboro.com/news/2014-community-forum/new-young-leaders-learning-disagree-well/
Affordability, taxes, housing, solid waste, economic development, and the future of Carolina North and Rogers Road: all longstanding hot-button issues in Orange County, and all requiring strong partnerships between the local municipalities as well as UNC.
Orange County leaders say the time is now to make those partnerships stronger.
“One of our major issues is to renew the strength and vitality of our partnerships with the municipalities,” says Barry Jacobs, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “I think we’ve lost touch to some degree.”
At the center of the conversation is the eternal question of affordability: how to manage the cost of living while preserving a desirable community, in a space with little room to grow.
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt says that’s often an issue in college towns – and it’s certainly the case in Chapel Hill.
“University towns are very, very highly sought after,” she says. “I try every day to recruit faculty and staff and students…of course they’re concerned about price of living, (but) mostly we hear that people want to live here. So I think we are still on the positive side of this equation: this is a very high-choice place.”
But with that desirability comes a number of challenges – including, perhaps most notably, the cost of housing. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says those costs are worth it: “I sometimes look around (my house) and think, wow, for this price I could be in a much bigger place in Durham,” he says, “but I’d rather be in Chapel Hill.”
And while higher property values still mean Chapel Hillians are paying more dollars in taxes, Kleinschmidt notes that Chapel Hill’s property tax rate is actually lower than many of our neighboring communities.
Still, the cost of housing is a strain, one that makes it difficult – if not impossible – for many people to live in Chapel Hill. And not only Chapel Hill: Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens says the affordability question is affecting his community as well.
“We’re seeing rising costs (too),” he says. “It’s a little bit less expensive to live here, so we’re finding families move out (of Chapel Hill-Carrboro) and folks wanting to be in Hillsborough – (but) as prices go up, we’re finding a lot of our families are moving to Mebane.”
The housing crunch has driven local leaders to explore creative policies for developing more affordable housing in all of Orange County’s municipalities.
But as Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle points out, housing is not the only factor driving the cost of living.
“We’ve studied extensively the interplay between transportation costs and affordable housing,” she says. “A typical income earner spends anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of their income on transportation – owning a car, taxes, insurance, and so forth.”
That, she says, gives local leaders a strong incentive to develop housing downtown – so residents don’t need vehicles to get to and from work. Kleinschmidt adds that he’s equally proud of Chapel Hill’s fare-free bus system, which also keeps the cost of living down.
Taxes too are a primary concern – and local leaders are quick to point out that they’ve managed to maintain services while avoiding tax increases, even through the long recession. (Lavelle says she expects Carrboro to maintain that streak this year too.) But Barry Jacobs says that, at the end of the day, it’s just as important to preserve the services that make Orange County a desirable place to live.
And the most important of those services, he says, is education.
“We’re proud of public education (and) we’re going to fund it to the best of our ability,” he says. “Going through the recession, and then having a state legislature that’s attacking public education, we have actually raised the per-pupil funding…and in the last 20 years we’ve built 14 schools in this county. And three of them were high schools. Those are expensive suckers…
“And that’s part of what makes this an attractive community. That’s what draws people here. It’s a double-edged sword, to use a cliché.”
But Jacobs adds that the need for education spending must be weighed against the concern for affordability – particularly the fact that many Orange County residents are seniors on fixed incomes.
And so the question returns to partnerships: town, county, and UNC officials working together to promote efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve the standard of living. Local leaders agree that’s already happening (if slowly) on the issue of Rogers Road remediation, and Chapel Hill Mayor Kleinschmidt says he’s confident it will also happen on the issue of solid waste: “I think we’re going to come together with a solution,” he says, “(and in) four, five, six years, we’re going to have a site for a transfer station that we’re all going to use.” (Kleinschmidt says there are several attractive candidates for that site in the northern part of Chapel Hill, including one off Millhouse Road.)
It’s also happening on the question of economic development, where UNC is actively partnering with the towns and county on projects ranging from the LAUNCH entrepreneurial incubator to the redevelopment of 123 West Franklin, the former University Square – though Chancellor Folt says little is happening right now when it comes to Carolina North. (“We’re really not having any active plans there right now,” she says. “It’s really not at the top of the list.”)
In the end, though, while local leaders seem to agree that municipal partnerships have been stronger, there’s also a shared commitment to strengthening them in the months and years to come.
“How we should go forward is together,” says Jacobs.
Folt, Jacobs, Kleinschmidt, Lavelle, and Stevens made those comments during the “Town and Gown” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum; they were joined on the panel by outgoing UNC student body president Christy Lambden.http://chapelboro.com/news/2014-community-forum/costs-partnerships-people-want-live/
Community leaders and neighbors came to the WCHL and Chapelboro.com offices yesterday with one goal in mind: to discuss our beloved community. Big names like Holden Thorp, Brian Chacos, Barry Jacobs, Reilly Parker and many more all spoke at the forum.