Council Vote Fuels Ugly Comments by Republicans

Lots of interesting stuff in the Opinion section of today's Chapel Hill News. First is the editorial called Flap over benefits turns ugly.

The council made a serious error in judgment -- several of them, actually -- and in so thoroughly misreading the public's likely response it gave the appearance of being out of touch with its constituency.

But it didn't commit high crimes and misdemeanors. It didn't make off with the Town treasury, lead the town into war on false pretenses or kick puppies. [...]

Plus there is Laurin Easthom's guest column called Controversy stoked by those with other agendas. Its on her blog too.

Some of those who have been the most outspoken, and continue to criticize and continue to threaten to put out petitions on items other than health care, are Republicans. It is just an interesting fact. [...]

and from later on in the same column,

Call me cynical, but I think this issue has been completely overblown. The fire was indeed started, but I think it is continuing to be fueled by a group of individuals who would love nothing more than to "stick it" to the council and pave the way for their candidates next year to run.

Are these events part of an organized attack against the progressive Council majority?



As I've said on other threads, I agree with the opinion that the Council screwed up. And as I've also said before, I don't like they way the Mayor tends to get negotiations with the Council worked out in advance to avoid lengthy public debates. While I can understand the policymaking pragmatism of this approach, I think it's very bad for democracy and for our government. (That's why I started calling it The Democracy Problem a couple of years ago.)

I know many of these Council members, and I trust them not to capriciously make decisions about important matters. I don't believe they do that much, but this was one glaring mistake. I hope they do take away from this experience the understanding that expedience needs to be balanced with process. I would like to see more productive debate at Council meetings - it could lead to better policies!

While Matt C is personally responsible for a lot of debating on the current Council, it rarely seems likely or even intended to change anyone's mind. Knee-jerk disagreement is just as unhealthy as lock-step agreement. Neither allows the Council to work as an effective team combining their diverse knowledge and perspectives into a better policies for all.

So anyway, I agree with the assessment of Laurin and others that the outcry about this poor decision was way out of proportion, and I do wonder what is really behind it. The Republican-orchestrated theory is an interesting one. I wonder if other people have ideas as to what caused such an emotional and turgid reaction?


While the conspiracy theory is an interesting and plausible one, and a number of citizens who took umbrage from the Council's actions are known conservatives, I think the flames were fanned by the 11+% tax increase which the Council passed on the same evening. Although the explanations and justifications given for this large tax increase were reasonable and honest, they did little to make the tax increase palatable. For people on fixed incomes or people getting cost of living (about 4% according to government figures; :-( ) salary increases, this 11% increase, coupled with somewhat similar increases in county and school taxes, seemed like the last straw. It's not like the warning signs weren't there that this was coming. The Council had public hearings, budget work sessions, etc. But as has been mentioned in other threads, many of these government activities go unnoticed and then when the final approval comes people seemed surprised. Add to that the Council approval of public financing of elections (which I think a many people still don't understand and and thus don't appreciate) you have the perfect storm.

I think we're going to see more of this locally, as conservatives struggle both to combat the reversals of public attitudes regarding Republican politics and to expand local influence in Chapel Hill and Orange County. Any foothold is a foothold.

That noted, however, it also seems to me not all that inexplicable that there was a sharp outcry about the Council's actions. Most people not already engaged in the local political scene only know what's going on from headlines in the CHN, the CHH, and maybe the "City/State" section of the N&O. They've gotten used to a fair amount of media run-up "warning," explanation, and discussion before the Council acts on something, but this time there wasn't much. So for most, it was a Tuesday morning surprise.

Add that to the "perfect storm" aspects of the timing with other tax/budget issues AND to what I can only describe as cranky apprehension about our economic future, given the impact of $140/barrel crude oil, the national debt, and Iraq.

Finally you have only to look at how simple the health insurance issue seems to be, and it's less surprising that it should strike a number of people as a clear target for expressing generic exasperation at political arrogance and self-interest. Complaining to Capitol Hill is largely an exercise in spitting into the wind, and the idea of protesting to the White House or the Supreme Court is just laughable. But we CAN get to the Council and we CAN expect them to respond.

If you're mad as hell and don't want to take it any more, this probably seemed a perfect example of what's going wrong everywhere. And therefore, any conservative campaign in the works tapped ready sympathy.

It is about process, but it's about more than that.

Why do any of our local governments provide health insurance to elected officials? I have yet to understand the justification for the use of our tax dollars. Please don't tell me they spend alot time away from home and family members. They are fed well, have good seats at the meeting, get invited to all kind of events, and just because they are elected official. I do agree they have to listen to some boring dry items on the agenda and some are known to fall asleep even when the public is speaking. The basic fact is they ran for public office because they wanted to serve the community.

One of the things about being away from here for nine days is your get to see what's happening in other places and how their local politics flows.  Coming home and catching up with this issue is interesting because I think that in some ways it is a defining issue and some have it just flat wrong.

Saying the Council made a mistake, they corrected it, so let's just move on doesn't work for me.  The mistake was not understanding the outcry that came as a result of their action.  I spoke at the meeting the night of June 9th and asked the Council to understand what people were experiencing on the economic front before passing things for their own benefit.  (Yes, everyone doesn't agree that public financing of elections works to their "own" benefit, but I believe it does.)

Here's the rub - Mayor Foy and Council members Strom, Greene and Ward ran as a TEAM.  We were asked to return the TEAM to the Council and the TEAM also included then Council member Hill; he was not returned.  When four members are in sync on almost every single issue, we have a right to question whether or not independent judgment is being exercised.  Not one of the four, you might note, has offered an apology or said much publicly.  How much they "coordinate" and "process" Council business prior to meetings is another concern people have. I can only wonder how much Matt C is included in this! All knew this was on the consent agenda and except for Matt, must have been fine with it.  Otherwise someone would have also spoken up and even voted against it.  Independence or TEAM group think?

Note also that Council member Ward has not commented on how one year he speaks out with such passion and emotion on this insurance thing and a couple of years later he is on the TEAM and says nothing about extending it for life.  Some here wondered about the fact that in the last election, he joined the TEAM and what it meant.  Teams, parties, or whatever you call them are designed to cue voters to a particular organized orientation and perspective.  Is this what we want for a nine-person Council?

This, at least to me, explains the anger, hostility, and outcry. I will never condone the negative emails and phone calls Council members received, but I do get the emotion and agree with George C above.  It would have also been helpful if the Mayor had explained what he was talking about in the first place!

It's not a conspiracy, it's people legitimately wondering why it was on the consent agenda, why only two members apologized, why the Council didn't weigh the broad public interest against their personal interest.

It's easy to say move on, but I doubt this will really happen until the members say more about this and until they structure a better way for the Council to handle pay and benefit decisions that will apply to a sitting council.

This is not overblown, this is not a conspiracy, and this is not how I expect a group of progressives to do public business.  I'm really saddened if others see this as an inconsequential blip that was just a mistake and that we should just move on.

As I try to help some of my clients understand, sometimes effective leadership is about understanding and valuing timing and the symbolic impact of the decisions that leaders make. 

Fred, I agree that this issue will most likely not disappear until some of the concerns raised are directly dealt with. While I don't think it inappropriate that the Town Council vote on any issue involving spending of Town revenues (that is, after all, their responsibility), I do believe that such votes should require at least one or more public hearings. And if such votes affect or provide financial benefit(s) to Town Council members then I believe the process should include a recommendation by an outside party. This would be similar to the role of a compensation committee on a board of directors but hopefully much more independent than we've recently observed in various industries where the CEOs essentially appoint their boards.

I would hope that there might be some sort of national organization that serves municipal governments that could provide a reviewer(s) for determining what constitutes fair and adquate compensation and then that determination could be presented as a recommendation at public hearing(s). I'm not sure whether there exists an organization that could provide, on a contract basis, such impartial review but given that I think the need exists in many communities additional to CH I would be surprised if one could not be found.

Fred writes: 

"How much they "coordinate" and "process" Council business prior to meetings is another concern people have."

Fred your entitled to your opinion of course, but I think you are looking for a problem that doesn't exist.  There simply isn't that much communications between councilmembers -- there isn't enough time for it.  The meetings are not rehearsed and the mayor doesn't poll members for their opinions before the meetings.  The health insurance vote can be easily explained by eight like-thinking councilmembers reaching similar conclusions  independently.  It's no surprise that the council members tend to think alike, since they are all elected by the same people, our town citizens.

From her blog: 

That’s no excuse for passing it. Before the meeting, I had not heard much about it from anyone. I don’t have health care with the Town and so the issue was not on my front burner. I am not sure of my future plans on running for Town Council again, either. I did receive a call from Sally Greene explaining why the Health Care Committee came up with the recommendation it did but heard very little if anything from any citizens out there.

I'm not dreaming this up Joe. 

Fred et al,

The last post was by me, I forgot to log in.  Joe


I would hope that there might be some sort of national organization that serves municipal governments that could provide a reviewer(s) for determining what constitutes fair and adequate compensation ...

This is a great idea.  If a paid consultant had recommended the continued health coverage then the same angry reaction might not have occured.  I do recall though, that Councilman Thorpe asked the staff to investigate policies in other similar municipalities.  They found that Orange County, Durham County and Cary offer pretty much the same coverage as was proposed.  And-we got that information for free!  Our Council is as deserving as the Orange and Durham County commissioners.  I don't remember any outcry about their benefits even though we Chapel Hillians are contributing to the Orange County benefits package.

The state of health care in this country is an undeniable mess.  EVERYONE should have health care, including each and every person who signed the petitions.  But, the anger expressed to the Council was misdirected-it should be focused on how we as a nation got to the point that this discussion would even be necessary.  But, as Priscilla said, "complaining to Capitol Hill is largely an exercise in spitting into the wind, and the idea of protesting to the White House or the Supreme Court is just laughable. But we CAN get to the Council and we CAN expect them to respond. " 

Del Snow

Del, I think for many people the issue is not so much the insurance but how they went about doing it.  Also, the timing is critical.  What was the state of the economy and the feeling of personal pain when the other jurisdictions approved their plan?  Timing also includes the insurance being approved the same night that publicly financed elections and a 3% pay raise triggered by a raise for Town employees was also approved.

In my opinion, it's not about being deserving or not.

If we're going to use how other political entities spend money with regard to funding health care for their politicians as a guide for us should we also look at how other political entities spend money with regard to other things as a guide for us too?

"If a paid consultant had recommended the continued health coverage then the same angry reaction might not have occured. "


Or there might be complaints about how much the consultant was paid to then recommend that yet more be paid to give the council continued benefits. 

If a paid consultant had advised them to do that, then the town would have encumbered another 25-40 grand on top of this embarrassing mess.  Our local governments pay outside consultants entirely too much for their influence, as if effective decision-making cannot come from within.  This includes the brain-picking that takes place on extravagant junkets to comparative towns.  Our leaders end up choosing one from Column A and one from Column B. 


When I suggested the idea of a consultant I was thinking that a national organization such as the National League of Cities or something akin to that might provide some sort of service, at a reasonable cost, that could provide objective evaluation of compensation for elected officials. I agree that we don't need more 40-50K consultants but I do feel that we need to look at compensation with objectivity, and that objectivity needs to cut both ways. Fair and equitable compensation and benefits should not be denied to our elected officials just because times are tough - I'm sure that they feel the pain just like the rest of us.

Benefits is a catch all term and one that is easy to hide for elected officials. Most meeting with any elected official has some kind of refreshment involved from drinks to full meals, add in health care and I wonder how much the total ends up being. I haven't even talked about trips, professional dues, or computers and I am sure I left something out. Benefits, more than what you are paid?
Okay George, that's different.  Membership in certain professional organizations has real value, much of which takes the form of expert consultancy.  Any municipality or local government worth its salt ought to subscribe to these national organizations.  Their websites and blogs easily substitute for expensive travel and slickly bound reports. 

I guess that my point about paid consultants was missed.  I don't think that the Town should have hired one, just that IF they had a paid outside source recommending health care benefits ,that messenger would not have been blamed for the contents of the message

In order to have an economically diverse Council who can appreciate  "the state of the economy and the feeling of personal pain," offering a basic necessity such as health care (and public campaign financing) is key.  The fact that other municipalities offer coverage IS relevant.  When Universities want to attract big name coaches, they make competitive offers.  So, yes, in a sense other schools determine what any one school is paying its coaches.  There is a relationship between similar categories of employment  that people reference.  Professors at all Universities earn more than TAs.  And if Council people or County Commissioners all around you receive health care, then a standard has been set.  That is why Councilman Thorpe asked for the research-to find out the standard.

One thing that seems to be missing from all of this discussion, is any awareness of the incredible volume of work involved with being on the Council.  There is a massive amount of information to be learned and managed, committees and conferences beyond the Council meetings that last late into the night, and this is usually on top of other job obligations.  I hardly think that some cans of Coke, some cookies, and comfy chairs are  perks  to envy.

One good thing about all of this discussion, though.  It's brought out many new activists whom I hope will avail themselves of the privilege of coming to Council meetings and commenting on future agenda items.  There will be lots of discourse on growth and density coming up!  



Del Snow

I serve on the Personnel Appeals Committee for the Town.  I have long thought that a "personnel" committee with more general advisory responsibilities would be very  helpful to town operations.       A "personnel" committee does not have to regularly  convene, but it could provide some citizen review and feedback about policies, procedures,  benefits, best practices, and the conscience of the community at it relates to the employees who serve it.      The committee would not have any binding authority, but it could be very helpful in providing some insight into matters like this one.

 I think the work of the Personnel Appeals committee is extremely interesting and very valuable. We  see a part of our town operations that many others do not.  Most of our work is confidential because it involves personnel matters, and they can be extremely complex.      Sometimes I think had we been able to weigh in a little earlier in the process it might have been more helpful to everyone involved.    

That was  my  anonymous  posting  above about the Personnel Committee. 

For those who are appointed to a town or county committee which has an elected official on your committtee. How often does that elected officials attend a meeting and how often does your committee meet?

Orange Unified Transportation Board met monthly, Alice Gordon made every meeting that did not conflict with BOCC and/or other OC meeting. Also, there were the many OC Comprehensive Plan meetings, also about one a month, which Alice attended. In the beginning, Barry Jacobs was supposed to attend the OUTBoard, but did not come. However, the idea of a "second" BOCC member was removed later, or perhaps no other CC wanted to serve on the board, if I remember correctly.

Alice Gordon is very, very involved in the work of the county. Two thumbs up.

One man with courage makes a majority.

- Andrew Jackson

Poppalax, this is such a broad question(s) I'm still trying to figure out what it is that you're trying to discern. Is it how much time outside of "official" meetings our elected officials spend on town/county business? If that's the case then your question only looks at the tip of the iceberg. I believe that County Commissioners and alderpersons/councilmembers all have a number of subcommittees and other meetings that they attend in addition to meetings of the appointed boards/committees. Can you be more specific in what you're looking for?

Sally Greene is sitting in the Town Council Chambers twice a month, which is as often as we meet.

Del Snow


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