NAACP, EmPOWERment, Inc., NRG and CURB Candidate Forum Reveals True Colors

On Wednesday, October 11, 2011, candidates for the Chapel Hill Town Council gathered at St. Joseph’s Church, on Rosemary Street, with members of the community for a forum organized by EmPOWERment, Inc., Neighbors for Responsible Growth (NRG), Citizens United for Responsive Building (CURB) and the local chapter of the NAACP. Framed as a public event for those who “value community participation” and social justice, I was eager to attend. I wanted to learn how organizations, busy with the grassroots work of fighting for empowerment and equity in Chapel Hill, frame the major issues facing marginalized people in Orange County and what concerns would (or would not) be addressed.

After a 30-minute period with light refreshments and a meet-and-greet with prospective candidates, residents, organizers and candidates gathered in the sanctuary of the church. Moderated by a UNC alumna and team leader for the Chapel Hill 2020 plan, the forum was run efficiently, with candidates responding to the opening question in a 2 minute time frame and each being forced to respond to some of the most touchy topics facing our community’s growth, development and internal community relations.

In the opening question, candidates were able to articulate their three major priorities for Chapel Hill and articulate direct actions they would take to accomplish one. With some candidates struggling not to venture into their platform, what followed was an articulation of concerns (with few citing potential solutions) and anecdotes of hard work for the community that began to run together.

Most of the candidates articulated and acknowledged the need for full participation in town activity.

Donna Bell echoed this when she said “Your voice needs to be heard because the end product needs to belong to everyone in Chapel Hill.”

Candidate Carl Schuler said accessibility would be one of his top priorities. “On Town Council, I would like to extend my accessibility and availability. Having accessibility is key.”

Incumbent candidate Jim Ward chimed in, noting the diversity in the audience. “Social equity is something I am passionate about.”

It was not until candidates were directly pressed, in some cases from questions hand-written by members of the audience, that their true colors of each began to show.

On the issue of development, many like Jason Baker pointed to the problems associated with the Greenbridge development.

“It is hard to stand in this place, in the literal and figurative shadow of Greenbridge, and talk about any other development,” Baker said.

Other candidates such as Matt Czajkowski pointed to other development failures or past shortcomings in addressing development. Czajkowski said the East 54 development was “out of scale,” and said that we have an “over-commitment to mix-use.” While looking to past problems is a healthy way of assessing how to improve future procedures, I am not sure I agree that development plans ensuring density and residential space close to commercial and office space (where people actually work) are the source of the problem facing marginalized and low-income people in Chapel Hill.

Addressing the issue of fair and affordable housing, Jon Dehart said housing was his favorite topic. Dehart said the town must look to experts for advice and solutions for problems of housing. Specifically, he pointed to Habitat for Humanity and EmPOWERment, Inc., as examples of such experts. He said money should not just go towards ensuring home ownership, but also towards affordable rental housing. However, in all fairness, when wealth is so closely linked to home ownership and the ability of parents to pass on assets to their children, encouraging long-term citizens of Chapel Hill to live in rental housing seems to be a flawed long-term plan.

Lee Storrow, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, pointed to the University and its ability to encourage both “good neighbor” educational programs and policies that could offset the pressure students place on such residents seeking affordable rental housing in direct competition with students in neighborhoods adjacent to campus.

“At UNC, there is a residential education program for students living on campus, but no such plan or program once they move off campus,” Storrow said. “We need to educate students about how to be good neighbors once they actually live in neighborhood communities.”

Storrow referenced a “power dynamic” facing marginalized people in Chapel Hill as a reason many voices have been unheard in town planning actions in the past.

“One thing that is fundamental is bringing in new voices and acknowledging the uneasiness people from various communities feel when walking into government buildings,” Storrow said.

On affordable housing, Jason Baker said that we cannot rely on Section 8 housing because the Town Council cannot force land lords to take in more Section 8 tenants. “Section 8 helps people towards the very bottom but can only be part of our comprehensive toolbox.”  

On the issuea facing sanitation workers and general worker concerns, Laney Dale said the key to preventing problems is in “oversight.” Bell followed Dale, saying that transparency in the grievance process is important. “We need to make sure grievances, like those filed in the past, are not lost,” Bell said.

When asked why low-income voters should vote for each candidate, Czajkowski referenced his recent trip to Haiti. He said when asking what was the number one need of impoverished people living in make-shift housing there was, jobs came before all else. Czajkowski said a job-exchange program, in which employers offer jobs to those living within the town is a means to providing jobs to low-income people in Chapel Hill. “I believe we have businesses with a social conscience,” Czajkowski said.

Once again, if a program like this is to succeed, however, we must work to ensure the kinds of work offered is respectable, safe and infused with opportunity for advancement.

Czajkowski also pointed to private-public partnerships in offsetting budget deficits and cut-backs. “We’ve got to look for new sources of income,” Czajkowski said. “I think we can be successful in that.”

I am merely concerned that the few people in Chapel Hill who do own or operate major business establishments may not have the priorities of the poorest and most powerless citizens in mind.  

Czajkowski also referenced the construction of a new library as a flawed priority in poor economic times. However, I question his view of a public library as merely a facility for casual reading and not as a necessary social asset and service. As we know, libraries connect workers and citizens without computer access at home to the internet and the wealth of opportunities for employment that can be found online today. Even more, as candidate Dehart noted, education is key. Libraries educate and enable workers to acquire the knowledge that can set them apart from other applicants.

Finally, the issue of campaign finance came to the forefront of discussion in the form of a question asking candidates to disclose whether or not they took campaign contributions from developers. While most said they had not taken money from such sources, Dehart, who works in development, said he had.

“They are citizens too,” Dehart said. He noted that he would not pledge to refuse money from developers in the future and said the bigger concern is whether or not the developers are from Chapel Hill or not. I question this philosophy, however, in noting that when their ability to contribute to a campaign is ten to twenty times that of an average citizen, their concerns (which have the potential to overlook the poorest that often stand in the way of new development) come with more weight.

While most of the candidates spoke of hope and inclusive policy, I question some of their solutions. While having office hours or working with businesses in Chapel Hill may benefit some, it cannot be seen as an end in and of itself. Only people who are privileged enough, with the time and resources and courage to come speak with elected officials, will seek out any representative directly.

I believe we need elected officials who will not wait for residents to come to them in order to ensure inclusion of all voices. Even more, I do not think that placing control of policy in the hands of business leaders or developers alone will solve issues like worker disenfranchisement, low-wages and lack of affordable housing.



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