I am suspicious of towns that claim to be “truly democratic.” In my experience that means that the influential people get to negotiate how they’ll use everyone’s resources. Sure, there is “input” from the public, but it seldom changes the discussion, much less the outcome.

Chapel Hill 2020 has helped me become a little less cynical and to recommit to the work of doing “democracy.”  I hope the spirit of community participation and transparent government grows and matures as we move into “phase 2.”

CH2020, is the Town Council’s initiative to involve the community in creating a new planning document that will guide Town Council in managing Chapel Hill over the next 10 years.

You may wonder who’s been guiding this management so far. Our elected officials and our highly competent town employees have. And they do a good job, but there are problems when the public is not involved:

If we are not involved, we don’t understand the trade-offs and real choices. It’s more complicated than it looks. For example, not all the roads in Chapel Hill belong to the town; understanding building codes took me a week of workshops. All residents affected by the decisions HAVE to be in conversation or we are making decisions based on biased or incomplete information.

If we are not involved, a few people put their interests ahead of everyone else’s. I know we are all busy, but I’ve come to realize that being politically responsible is like eating right: if you don’t do it, you end up sick. If our town doesn’t have the whole community involved, it will end up sick. Sick from lack of green spaces; from lack of affordable housing or adequate transit; sick from inequity and lack of access. Sick from lack of creativity.

Some years ago, we lost our two front-yard trees in an ice storm. I wasn’t too sad. They looked beautiful in bloom, but they stank to high heaven, offered almost no shade, and were dangerously weak. I asked a landscaper why our developer might have planted Bradford Pears. “They’re easy to put in the ground and grow quickly,” he said. There’s a lesson here for us: easy and quick won’t meet your long-term needs. Easy and quick will cost you in the long run, when it breaks or starts stinking. We now have a young Maple and last week planted an apple tree. They are a lot more work, and we don’t expect them to look majestic or start bearing fruit for some years, but come by in 2020 and check them out.