“Town leaders aren’t listening to the people.”

We heard that claim repeatedly from several candidates running for public office in Chapel Hill last fall.  With the promise they would listen to the people, several of those candidates have now been elected officials for almost a year.

Matt Bailey

Matt Bailey

Of the 59,000 people who call Chapel Hill home, which ones are worthy of town leaders’ ears?  Is it okay for town leaders to ignore any of our residents?

“Of course not,” you say, “everybody should have a chance to be heard.”

Unfortunately, the current method Chapel Hill’s town council uses to solicit our needs, concerns, and dreams for our community systematically shuts out everyone from parents with young children to nurses working second shift. That’s because the only way to make sure town leaders hear your voice is to go to town hall at 7:00 P.M., sit in an uncomfortable chair for meetings that can last past midnight, and give a three-minute speech in person to town leaders whenever they call your name.

It’s bad enough that we ask residents to surrender four hours of their lives for the chance to make three minute speeches.  However, if you have a child you can’t leave at home, if you have to work or study, or if mobility or health challenges prevent you from spending all evening at town hall, you don’t get to participate at any price.

The result is that the people who participate at most public hearings in Chapel Hill are more likely to be older, more likely to be Caucasian, and more likely to be long-time homeowners than the citizens of our community as a whole.

It’s not intentional. It’s just the way it’s always been.

“If you’re not a part of the solution,” they say, “you’re a part of the problem.” With that solutions-focused adage in mind, here are four random ideas how Chapel Hill’s elected officials can listen to more of our people:

1) Let citizens give their three-minute speeches via video messaging on their smartphones.  According to Edison Research, 76% of all Americans and 84% of 25- to 54-year-olds now own Smartphones, all with built in cameras.  With video apps from Skype, Facetime, Periscope, Google Hangouts and YouTube Live, the technology exists today to let residents who can’t make it to town hall in person participate from home. Seriously, it’s 2016.  If we can Skype Japan for free, certainly the smart leaders of Chapel Hill can figure out a fair and efficient way for people to participate via video conferencing.

2) Hold public meetings and information sessions at places where people are already gathered at times they’re already there, such as the Library, University Place (you’ll always be U-Mall in my heart), or the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning when people are already gathered there, instead of weekday evenings when they’re not.

3) Create dedicated Facebook pages for big issues so citizens can stay up to date and share with their neighbors.  People don’t hang out on the town website and the local newspaper paper isn’t what it used to be. People are gathered on social media. By creating dedicated pages for big issues facing our community, people could easily share updates with their neighbors, discuss opinions, and keep up to date on the latest official information.

4) Individual council members could hold regular “join me for lunch/dinner/coffee” sessions. Lee Storrow routinely held such events, but he was always at the Yuppie joints downtown. I’d do it at K&W Cafeteria.

You might know of legal or logistical obstacles that stand in the way of implementing these ideas. Instead of saying, “that won’t work,” can you offer ways to make these ideas work?

You might note that these ideas leave out important segments of our community, including residents who aren’t tech savvy, are economically disadvantaged, or who aren’t fully proficient in English. Do you have ideas how we can reach these segments of our community and include their needs and opinions in the conversation?

You might simply think these ideas are dumb. Fair enough. What are your ideas?

If your answer is, “the system isn’t broken,” are you willing to look in the face of the parent home with their child, the nurse at UNC Hospitals, the graduate student at his work-study job, or anyone else who cares about our community but can’t spend all night at town hall, and tell them your voice is more important than theirs?

I have faith that almost all of our elected officials genuinely want to represent our whole town, not just certain parts of it. It’s also not fair to expect change overnight. However, if nothing in our community engagement process has changed by 2019, incumbents can’t run for re-election claiming they, “listened to the people.”

Let’s work together with town leaders to give them the chance to hear from the rest of us.


— Matt Bailey


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