Is Chapel Hill About to Fracture?

Guest post by Nick Eberlein

Once the brouhaha over November's council race and the implications it would have for the town - and more pointedly, for town-UNC relations - died down weeks afterward, we have seen very little in the press about what we may expect in the coming months, years, etc. between the two parties. But when I was made aware of Bob Burtman's fresh column in this week's Indy, it seems that a whole new round of mud-slinging, compromising, controversy, stonewalling, or stalemate could easily begin very soon.

The article, I think anyway, does a good job of weaving a synthesis between the successful advocacy candidates, the gearing up of Carolina North negotiations, the matching of university powerbrokers with elected officials to shoot the bull over common issues, and the ensuing lobbying petition that has resulted. What makes this article interesting is it sourced entirely with anonymous quotes (e.g., "a council member," "a student enrolled in Jonathan Howes' class") and makes some pretty damning allegations.

According to Burtman, the unnamed Council Member has accused UNC officials of using these meetings as a means to butter up the Council rather than breaking bread and discussing shared interests. Burtman suggests that a rift is forming between some on the Council, and there may be the possibility of distinct voting blocs forming amongst its membership on town-gown subjects. However, he is also of the mind that UNC officials right now are actively working to circumvent the town's authority on any and all issues relating to campus operations, growth, and expansion. He attributes much of this knowledge to one of Howes' unnamed students, who has apparently stabbed his former professor in the back and violated classroom confidentiality by relaying to Burtman that Howes was, at times, vocal about his distaste for some of this year's election winners because of their stances regarding UNC.

What I am wondering after reading this is: has Burtman opened up a can of worms and made public simmering hostilities that were kept relatively quiet? Or is the veil of anonymity used in this article a convenient means to push out some compelling copy? Does UNC really have the clout to hold sway over the local media's editorial opinion, as the article suggests? The article's final suggestion that 'UNC uber alles' is an agenda actively impressed upon the students may be the most daunting charge made.

What think y'all folks? Do you foresee a smooth, mutual planning interface between the town and Carolina as the years progress and proposals come together, or are they playing a high-stakes game of chicken that could go horribly wrong at any time?

Nick Eberlein is a Chapel Hill native and a senior journalism and history major at UNC.



I think the real issue from the column that should be the focus is the amount of light shined on what is going on.

Classrooms at public universities are open and anyone who teaches there should know this. Is there anything else being "taught" we should know about?

Many states have sunshine laws regarding disclosure between elected officials and interactions with "interested" parties.

The problem with lobbying council members - particularly the UNC employees including Verkerk and Ward - is that we have no idea what they are being told. Maybe they are being told they can be chair or the department later on etc..... If their discussions are about how great Car. North is then they should be telling that to the council at public hearings or can wirte letters to the editor as residents do. What could they be telling them in private that can't be disclosed in public. Does not the public have a right to know?? This is not Iran-contra national security type information I would surmise.

Therefore, reasonable people could conclude that the failure to disclose these kernels of information in public means these are "secrets" they do not want in the public domain. As an elected official in a tiny town anyone with an ethical compass would see there are policy problems with information that is kept out of the public domain.

Perhaps Elaine Barney's petition could be modified that emails between these parties and summaries of the meetings are posted on the town web site???

Why o' why does it feel like we live next to a multinational corporation rather than a public university that reflects the progressive values of its residents?

I think it is a bit of a stretch to think that an at-large Town Council will be of the same mind on an issue as complicated as Carolina North. It is however, desirable to believe that they can solve the problems and deal with the issues that come before them using a process that allows for hearing a broad range of perspectives and then make decisions on how they see the fact - not decisions based on coalition politics. A consensus is not always possible, and especially in some complex issues, and this is where differing points of view must be resolved with a majority or extra-majority vote.

None of this implies that rancor, hostility and unpleasantness among Council members is desired or required. Also, at this stage of Carolina North discussions, it's hard to react to the very "notional" ideas that are being floated. At some point in the future, there should be something specific to react to, and who even knows if this Council will be the one to receive the plan.

An off-topic clarification to an on-topic post - the drought of '77 was not worse than the drought of '02. The water supply at that time was way less. It was before Cane Creek Reservoir. The situation was worse.


Ruby, I do agree with you about your comments in my response to your post, but I'm not sure if a smooth negotiating process is dependent solely on the University being forthright, honest, and flexible. I remember during this past year's campaign that Bill Strom mentioned that the biggest obstacle to town-gown relations was that the University all collaborated on UNC's goals and spoke with the same voice — however, many different opinions on the council existed in regard to negotiation with UNC. What worries me is that we are already seeing voting blocs form within the council. Verkerk, Ward, Wiggins, and Harrison held that press conference today to advocate for continuing the traffic camera program, for example, and anyone can read the polarizing comments different council members have about the lobbying petition. I don't mind the council disagreeing about intrinsically town topics, like the cameras or the budget, but when you introduce the biggest entity in the town into the mix, and one that wants things from the council, it is dangerous, I think, if the council is not of one mind about what should be done. With the current climate as it is, do you think the council will ever be able to reach a consensus on university zoning and expansion policy, or are UNC administrators just going to sit there and smirk while the council infights the whole time about what to do? I fear that if the council is not unified and the members are not consistent in their rapport with each other, then any attempts to reach a mutually agreeable situation between the town and UNC will be unfruitful.


Could someone clarify this idea that what is said in a college classroot is somehow confidential? It's been a long time since I went to college but I don't remember ever feeling that way or that it was not possible to observe a class.

The tension between the town and the university continues to surprise me. I first moved here in 1977 during a really bad drought--worse than 2002. We were on very strict water restrictions, car washes and laundromats were closed, and lots of individuals and businesses began putting in wells. I was horrified when the university chose to open as scheduled, but everyone else took it in stride. It was a very memorable introduction to the (then) mutually shared goals of the town and university. Then I left in 1990 and something happened to change the relationship. I'm sure the causes of that change are complex on both sides, but what I find frustrating is that both sides seem to accept the divide. As someone who loves both the town and university, I feel torn and don't like it.

Dan, if you read the Indy story, you'll see that Prof. Howes says he has this expectation of mutual confidientiality in HIS class. Not clear if it was explicitly stated or just assumed, though.

I found Burtman's article quite interesting regarding current town-gown dynamics. Especially the insight into the tight-lipped Jonathan Howes. But I don't think it revealed a NEW aspect of what's going on. This hasn't been simmering underneath, it's been hanging over our heads for the last couple of years. Even before Howard Lee and Tony Rand tried to strip our zoning authority via the NC Senate budget bill. (This incident was later described as inevitable "collateral damage" by Chancellor Moeser.)

Another example, does anyone remember the University's bob-and-weave when it came time for the towns to appoint citizen representatives to the Carolina North Advisory Panel? And in last year's Town Council race, UNC development wasn't a subtext - it was the main issue. That why I think we can consider it to be some kind of referendum: candidates spoke their minds about it, and the voters responded in kind.

In answer to Nick's final question, "Do you foresee a smooth, mutual planning interface between the town and Carolina as the years progress and proposals come together?" It depends. The Towns have already given a lot, pretty much everything UNC has asked for. The University has got to give a little, or it will be impossible to establish an equitable negotiating process.



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