No, 7pm Work Sessions Aren't Better for the Public

Last week, the Town of Chapel Hill sent out an email announcing that Town Council work sessions will now start at 7pm at the Chapel Hill Public Library. Work sessions previously began an hour earlier than regular meetings of the Town Council, starting at 6pm. Tonight’s work session will be the first to start at the new time.

Mayor Pam Hemminger seems to be the driving force behind the change in start time. She touted the change as one of her early priorities in an interview with WCHL’s Aaron Keck back in December. The reason given for the change by Mayor Hemminger was to make the meeting times more consistent, less confusing, and more accessible to town residents.

It doesn’t seem to us that moving work sessions back an hour really achieves any of these things. Changing meeting times doesn’t actually do anything to better engage the public. As OP editors Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco recently wrote in the Chapel Hill News, we have a systemic problem with public engagement that has to change. Our community is not just the people who can show up and stick around for hours at public meetings, regardless of when they start.

And, really, even if you are trying to make the existing meetings better for members of the public, holding meetings at 7pm at the public library isn’t the way to do it. The later meeting time actually makes attending meetings more difficult for transit-dependent individuals, as the last bus departs for downtown from the nearest stop to the library at 8:52pm. Rarely does the Council wrap up in under two hours. Additionally, meetings held at the library, as opposed to those held at Town Hall, are not recorded or broadcast on public access TV.

At best, changes like this are neutral. They’re not significant accomplishments. We hope shifting the paradigm on public engagement and how we do it happens in 2016, but that requires getting away from the meeting-centric focus that this change still emphasizes.


While I agree that we need to change several other things to encourage more citizen participation and I acknowledge that the site of the work sessions is problematic for several reasons, I'm OK with the change in the time.  I think it has the potential to help encourage attendance by parents who might not have been able to attend meetings that began at 6 PM.  I think it also eliminates the need (which I never understood anyway) to feed Council members since it was always possible to grab a bite to eat before coming to the meeting or to bring our own food.  I do think having the meetings at the Library allows Council members, where they get to face one another in a more relaxed setting, allows for better, and perhaps more in-depth discussions among Council members and that is, I believe, one of the purposes of having such work sessions.

As one who attended many work sessions over the years, I applaud this change to 7 00, Thanks Pam

There is never going to be a time frame that everyone agrees with. But being consistent is a no-brainer in my opinion. I don't think this issue has anything to do with public engagement. Those people who care about certain issues are going to show up or send emails, regardless of what time the meeting is. They can also watch the videos, if they can't get to the meeting. Public engagement is about more than attending meetings. At least with a consistent meeting time, those who do want to speak directly to Council will know what time to be there.

Reading this harange brings me to a related topic; how is it the OP editors find cause to criticize the actions of the new mayor who hasn't even chaired their first meeting and not mention the disgraceful backroom dealing with regard to the Legion property (likely in violation of the open meeting laws) by the outgoing mayor? It seems the fish rotted from the head down.

I hear this thread of people who are trying to malleciously accuse Council members and former Mayor Kleinschmdit of backroom dealings.  This is an example of moving backward, and not the kind of engagement the town needs to move forward and deal with its pressing challenges.  Nothing illegal happened during Mayor Kleinschmidt's tenure, I would know, I managed his life.  So, either put your money where your mouth is, don't be a coward, and file a lawsuit against former Kleinschmidt and the Town, so he completely exonorated and make you look like a fool.  Or be quiet. I don't respect people who don't put their money where their mouth is. 


Inquiring minds and all that........

The main point to my post was to illustrate the hypocrisy of the OP lament about transparency of government, but as long as you are here…….let’s see how the truth works.

If you are so much in the know, please tell us why the closed door meeting? Since there was clearly an "agreement" with the developer (which is what raises the question of an open meeting violation), please tell me why you think “nothing illegal happened”. What exactly was the urgency at the 11th hour of his administration to move forward on development of some 600 high rent apartments on one of the last large parcels inside the town limits without public discussion, especially since the voters clearly voted to slow the development down?

Even if the meeting turns out to be legal, it seems ethically questionable, eh?

So no, I won't "shut up" Mr. McCurry. I will continue to question authority and speak truth to power whether you like it or not and your attempt to bully me will not work, your respect means very little to me.



The issue about accusing people of corruption is that corruption is illegal.  Accusing someone of corruption is a very serious statement. The commentary on WHCL today, walked in that direction, if not up to the line. Second, if it is a closed session, then that is not back room dealing.  Back room dealing implies people are meeting beyond the knowledge of the public.  There are valid legal reasons Council meets in closed session, and even though it is beyond the eye of the public, it serves an important purpose.  So I stand by my statement, if you think something illegal happened, shut up and sue, or stay quiet about it.  It isn't a helpful coversation.  Ethics, is also a tricky word people might throw around to suggest malecious intent or poor character.  Saying it is hot air.  Make a strong claim about how specific individuals acted in a specific way unethical to there positions as elected officals, or shut up about it.   In anycase, didn't the people of your political persuasion just have some significant wins?  This kind of sniping at past elected officals suggests you may not know how to make a contribution that might better the community rather than target retired Mayors. 

Just what do you think my “political persuasion is” and what does that have to do with the former mayor’s seemingly unethical behavior? You sound very shill and emotional, take a pill. You have clearly been hanging out with the mayor too long; ethics are not “tricky”. Quite the opposite, ethics are the principals that define behavior.

Even though you claim to have firsthand knowledge, you failed to answer any of the questions I posed. Do you think the questions are unfair? Do you think the conclusion based on your lack of specific response to the questions is unfair? What if the party in question was not so close to you? What exactly was the urgency and intent of this last minute deal on such an important property?

Mark Kleinschmidt brought the questions down on himself with his actions. His actions are fair game especially when the timing and content is as suspicious and disconnected from the public eye as this one was. It’s “backroom” by definition. 

I will not “shut up” and I will continue to publicly question this until I hear satisfactory answers. Your attempts to get me to “shut up” and not ask valid questions and publicly get to the bottom of a deal that affects everyone in the county are what is “unhelpful”.

Additionally, as I understand the current state of the property, is that no approval of development has occurred.  The only thing the Town has done so far with this property is exercise its right of first refusal.  Which means the process for the development of this property hasn't even truly begun.  

Why not wait for the new mayor? What was the urgency? Why were concept plans, numbers of units and roadways as well as how many acres the town would get out of the deal diascussed? Why a developer that is known for expensive units? If you are so much in the know why not answer the questions?

That is an excellent question for communication and public affairs, they work to schedule the agenda in accordance with the business needs of the town.  I was rarely involved in the scheduling of agenda items for Council business.  Rather than complain on the message boards, and ask hypotheticals, call this number during normal business hours: 919-968-2743.  The other questions are more legal in nature about what was made public when, and why.  I suggest you seek private legal counsel if the information provided by the town in some way is not satisfying.

your mouth is not where your thought your money was, eh?

No, I gave you a solution to the question you asked. Pursue at your lesuire.  I didn't say I knew everything, but based on the fact you didn't seem to understand the town hadn't approved any units on the property, I'd be careful about suggesting who knew what. 

"Nothing illegal happened during Mayor Kleinschmidt's tenure, I would know, I managed his life" Sounds to me like you made a claim to know. Your response to legtimate questions about motive and timing of a important decision made by an outgoing mayor in the 11th hour of his term bullying. What the heck is Duke teaching you?

First, let’s cut the new Mayor some slack. I have no doubt she’s genuinely trying to make work sessions more accessible by moving them to 7:00. There will always be pros and cons of any meeting time.

The problem isn't when we start public meetings. It’s the fact that—in 2016—we’re still relying on in-person public meetings as the primary way our citizens can give their feedback. Parents with young children, nurses working second shift, students with evening work study jobs, and many others in our community simply can’t spend an entire evening at town hall (or the library), no matter how deeply they may care about an issue. In an era of Skype, Google Hangouts, and social media, there’s simply no reason we can’t use technology to give these ignored citizens a voice.

As a marketing research professional, my industry depends on getting feedback from a complete and accurate representation of the public our clients target. If we fail, we’re out of work. We long ago stopped relying solely on research methods that require participating in person, such as traditional focus groups. We increasingly employ online tools, so people can also give our clients feedback using their smartphones or computers when and where it’s convenient for them. Don't our citizens deserve simmilar opportunities?    

A key promise CHALT-backed candidates campaigned on was that they would listen to the people. If those newly elected officials are truly committed to listening to the people, and not just those citizens who share their disdain for recent development, they will follow up on this campaign promise by implementing new ways to engage every segment of Chapel Hill diverse population, not just the few who have all night to spend at public meetings.

... the OP editors doth protest too much.

Why didn't the authors raise this subject over the past 8 years? Certainly this is not original or new thought on the part of OP, a double standard with a political agenda is the obvious conclusion. 

While I agree with the concept of using mobile and social media technologies is attractive, you have to agree that marketing research is very different from actual governing, right? Sure, facebook and twitter and all the rest can be used for instant updates and feedback but they can be abused and contribute to the digital divide, isolating certain communities. They also suffer from being so effortless and casual that they can become trivial and promote thoughtless knee-jerk reactions to important issues (apologies to Donald Trump). The electronic equivalent of the mob is not necessarily a good idea when trying to promote citizens opportunity for communication and information.

Both social and societal marketing are all the rage. Market research companies make a living out of massaging results in a number of ways to suit the client. One only has to pick up the phone to understand results depend on what questions are asked, by whom in what order. 

I see very little thought about the ramifications, actionable suggestions or any evidence of critical thinking in the newspaper or blog rants. I am therefore a bit skeptical of the actual value to the people knowing that these techniques could be misused and abused by government in the same ways they are currently by corporations, politicians and political blog editors that masquerade as editors and journalists. 

I would council to go slowly on some of these trends and not succumb to the trendy and shallow.

I have a difficult time comprehending how allowing some slots where citizens could give their three-minute public hearing comments via Skype, instead of having to spend all night down at town hall, would be, "misused and abused by government." 

.......questioning the motivation and thoroughness of the thought behind the diatribe. I agree wholeheartely with the inadequacy of the 3 minute rule and that given the proper use that it could be made much better. As you said, give them a chance.

Council Member Ward moved that the Council go into closed session, as authorized by General Statute Section 143-318.11 (a)(4), to discuss matters related to an economic development proposal within the Town and, as authorized by General Statute Section 143-318.11 (a)(5), to discuss terms for the possible acquisition of real property on Legion Road for which the Town holds a first right of refusal. Council Member Greene seconded the motion. The vote was unanimous.

However, Council did NOT act on possible acquistion or the right of first refusal.  Instead their action was:

Council Member Storrow moved to authorize the Town Manager to negotiate with the proposer for the Town’s interest in the expanded park and a roadway to be built prior to not acting on the Town’s right of first refusal. The motion was seconded by Council Member Palmer. The vote was 8 to 0.

Why was the manager authorized in closed session to negotiate with a PROSPECTIVE buyer even before the Town has given up it right of first refusal?  This resulted in the Town having an established interest in the proposed development and a working negotiating relationship with a potential applicant before it had given up its option and before any concept plan was presented to the public.

Exacty. However you will not get any answers here, only legal dissembling and emotional ad-hominem attacks from a Duke Law student.

What are you citing are in regards to negotiations is around the issue of right of refusal held by the town, still within the purview of dealing with the primary issue of right of first refusal.  

Additionally, if this is an issue you care about  just send in a FOIA request.  There are answers to these questions. 

We are still talking about people engaging in a process, a process that they had every legal right to engage in, and one that was constructed to serve a purpose that is supposed to serve the Town and citizens.  If you don't want your elected officals to have these powers and rights, talk to your legislator about limiting the scope of municipal authority.   These issues will continually arise based on existing authority.  If they make you so angry, do something about it rather than rail on the messages boards.  

Many people throughout Chapel Hill were angry.  Then they voted. 

People have the right to express their opinions and thoughts through voting.  I am not disputing that.  If I have any purpose in these exchanges, it is to ensure people understand when they really need to be angry.  I will maintain, no matter who has or doesn't have power, that the choices I made, and the people I have supported, are working to help make Chapel Hill a better place. I get frustrated when people do things like suggest illegal activity, or question the character of hardworking, respectable, honest officials.  You can agree or disagree with policy, but leave those comments aside, unless the issue is real.  Calling people on that,is important.  That's just bullying, and it doesn't serve anyone. 

in the nick of time didn't they?

What is being questioned is the timing and motives of people in what is emerging as a pretty shady chain of events. The towns economic development director had closed door meetings with Woodfield Investment in March 2015. Stancil had closed door meetings with the Legion folks in April 2015. The TC had closed session meeting "to discuss the matter" in June 2015. The first hint to the public came out in a Chapelboro article in August 2015. The towns economic development director again had meetings in August/September 2015, the same month the Legion accepted Woodfields offer. Then, the icing on the cake right before the new mayor takes office.......Sheesh, it's like a Tom Wolfe novel.


So you know all these things happened.  What is the point? Apparently you are paying attention and there is a record of these events.  So do a FOIA on emails, get an attorney, and dipose them if you can find a substantive legal issue on the meetings.  Stop complaining and do something, or stop stirring the pot.   I hope you apply the same level of scrunity to all the new incoming Council members and Mayor, but I doubt that is the point.  You are parcing hairs to make an issue out of nothing to draw on a conversation that will go nowhere (or to try and gain some kind of political captial).  You can't give a litanny of meetings and events, and claim there is no oversight or public particpation and holds people accountable.  These are not compatable statements, you have tools in the Town to seek answers, and you have a legal system to pursue valid legal claims outside of them.  Get off your soap box and do something, unless the piont is to be on the soap box.   

Heh. I don't need to litigate in court when I have you here to respond to my soap box, do I? (BTW thank you for that).

Let me offer an alternative theory;

Everything was going along hunky-dory for the mayor and his non transparent (I'll stop calling it secret, but you get the idea, wink-wink) deal to enable even more high rent residential on the last large plot of land in the town ...........until oooops! The unthinkable happens and the election is lost! 

What to do? Quick like a bunny, get the right of first refusal dissolved and take away any negotiating power for the new administration. Undermine the ability to stop the deal against the will of the electorate as a parting gift................certainly plausible, don’t you think?

Transparent by whose standards?  By the ones that matter, the law and town policy, everything was transparent. And my understanding is there was an urgent timeline on the deal regarding the right of first refusal.  In such a case, no negotiating power was taken away.  You and your lot are nothing but conspirarcy theorist grasping at straws.  "You madam, are like talking to this table" - Barney Frank 

How about this one: "The opposite of pragmatism is not idealism. It’s wishful thinking.". I know its hard to parse your own words, but the right of first refusal was taken away in closed door negotiations without public input. That fact is not transparent by anyones standards. I doubt Mark Kleinschmidt would have been silent if the situation were reversed.

An "urgent timeline" that required secrecy and just happened to fall in the month the former mayor lost the election, eh? Hah!

Here is a quote from someone more in your legal wheelhouse: “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me its raining” – Judge Judith Sheindlin

This post wasn’t about the town’s decision to not buy Post 6’s land for $9-million (which, by the way, it did in a closed session that is explicitly authorized under G.S. 143-318.11 (a)(4) - (5) and is common practice when municipalities discuss economic development opportunities involving sensitive financial details). It wasn’t about how CHCCS asked the town not to waste $9-million on land when the schools have $160-million in existing priorities. (The only reason the town wanted the land 10 years ago was for a new school). This post wasn’t even about how CHTC negotiated with Post 6’s buyer to build a road and expand a park—with no promise whatsoever that their proposal would actually get approved—in exchange for the town not buying the land it wasn’t going to buy anyway. Given the unanimous council vote, it must have been noncontroversial.  The new Council would have likely acted no differently.

No, this blog post was about how moving CHTC work sessions to 7pm is NOT better for the public. It is a timely topic, because Mayor Hemminger pledged during her campaign that she would, “listen to the people,” and moving town council work sessions to 7pm is an action she took towards fulfilling this promise—with genuine intentions, I believe. 

The OP editors made two very valid critiques: 1) Moving the meeting time later means citizens who rely on Chapel Hill Transit can’t take the bus home and 2) moving the meetings to the library means you can’t watch the work sessions on TV or online and that there is no recorded video of the session. As someone who frequently watches CHTC online, that’s a huge issue for me personally.   

More fundamentally, the OP editors asserted that the time meetings start isn’t our public engagement problem. Rather, the fact that attending lengthy meetings is the only substantial way citizens can participate with town government is the real problem.

For everybody who came here to change the subject, do you think moving CHTC work sessions to 7pm is sufficient fulfillment of campaign promises to, “listen to the people?” Do you believe a system that requires spending all evening at town hall simply to make a 3-minute speech really represents the priorities and beliefs of Chapel Hill’s diverse population? Are you willing to keep the issue of inclusive public engagement a hot topic that demands our elected officials fulfill their promise to, “listen to the people?”

Or, are you changing the subject because you fear what might happen if those missing segments of our citizenry had a voice?

I believe most elected officials genuinely do want to listen to all Chapel Hillians. However, expanding opportunities for public engagement won’t be on their agenda unless they know Chapel Hillians believe it’s a priority.

The agreement of the road and land in exchange for signing away the right of first refusal could well amount to a direct violation of 143-318.11. “Any action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.”

Regardless, the action was a sneaky and underhanded in the short window after losing the election and the next administration taking office.

1)     Do you think moving CHTC work sessions to 7pm is sufficient fulfillment of campaign promises to, “listen to the people?”

No. Don’t you think OP is jumping the shark when they have only had one meeting?

2)     Do you believe a system that requires spending all evening at town hall simply to make a 3-minute speech really represents the priorities and beliefs of Chapel Hill’s diverse population?

No. How come this did not come up during the Kleinschmidt administration? How come no one was complaining on OP when people did spend all evening at town hall simply to make a 3-minute speech, and then were ignored by the TC? How come OP ignores the transgressions of the political kabala they support?

3)     Are you willing to keep the issue of inclusive public engagement a hot topic that demands our elected officials fulfill their promise to, “listen to the people?”

Certainly, are you willing to stipulate that the previous administration was by no means squeaky clean and their actions were the genesis of the bad feelings and the OP articles are misapplied to the wrong people?

The new mayor has been in office for less than 2 months and there were two weeks of holiday in the middle. However, in that short time, she's made several steps toward fulfilling a promise to make meetings more accessible, one of which is committing to a fixed, dependable meeting schedule. Other improvements she has already implemented include having the agendas posted online earlier along with a new webpage with updates on development projects.

In response to the suggestion to allow comment via Skype and to remove the 3 minute limit, there are practical considerations that need to be made. Skype is a synchronous technology which doesn't scale to the potentially 100s of people that could want to speak on certain topics. Email is already available as a technical option for providing input and it isn't restricted in size or by time. It's been well used over the past several years. As public access to technology is improved, it becomes even more democratizing. There are other technical possibilities, but after having monitored what other communities do to improve engagement via technology, I don't think they are worth the cost at this time.

Removing the 3 minute limit during the Council meeting would allow some people to drone on and on without contributing anything positive. I support the time limit. At OWASA we encourage speakers to provide their full statement via email which gives us a much better reference when it comes time to make a decision.

Engaging the public is a goal I wholeheartedly support, but I do not support doing so reactively. This is a topic that needs consideration, trial and effort, and commitment. I believe Mayor Hemminger will succeed is doing this if her critics can just back off and give her a chance.

Agreed, Scale is indeed one problem. Although new media content such as Skype, Youtube and embedded links in twitter can be made available in an asynchronous manner similar to visual voicemail. (e.g. QiK). The danger is the sheer volume and length of some may make the channels unwieldy if not unusable.

I agree proactively initiating the conversation and limiting the tangential is preferable to reactive communication. If there were some way to present the facts in a neutral way (harder than it sounds) and get a “me too” feel for the sentiment of the people as well as raise new issues, then outreach using more modern media could be an input. The meetings I attend often have statements from people that do not understand all the aspects of a given issue or are unaware that simply not liking something is not enough to stop it (although not liking it has a definite effect if enough people say “me too”).

I have recently changed my mind about neighborhood information meetings. Properly run, I think they are a good way to keep the focus local when the issue is local. I think that they could be used effectively to address more than just special use permittting.

The three minute limit is tough. I hope there is a better way but I can’t think of one, although following up with an email or handing a written statement to the clerk is a very good way to make finer points that are lost in the three minute rule.

My favorite Chapel Hill quote on the issue of long town board meetings. I started regularly attending Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen meetings in the Fall of 1971. The 7 pm meetings were often interminible and with all the long winded Chapel Hillians, meetings not infrequently were still running at midnight.  At that point, Alderman Ross Scroggs would rise and say "The Board of Aldermen meets on Monday, this is Tuesday", and he left the room. This seemed to bring things to a pretty swift conclusion.



That’s one way to end a meeting, however take it from me that would not work in the private sector. It would not be in the spirit of solving today’s kerfuffle either.

I remain convinced there is a better (not perfect) way to do this development thing; I am just not smart enough to detail it by myself. I think the most workable solutions have to do with separation of business as usual from the more contentious issues and localizing concerns within a well communicated "master plan" that ties town wide development and infrastructure strategies together. Yea, it's that planning thing.

Also some history is in order as well. It seems to me a long time ago Chapel Hill chose density over sprawl (yea I know), but that choice did not imply leaving neighborhoods and communities out of the decision making equation, nor did it imply significant development before critical infrastructure issues were addressed or private dealings. At the end of the day, I suspect that people are closer to agreement on growth trajectories than it would appear on the surface.

Also some history is in order as well. It seems to me a long time ago Chapel Hill chose density over sprawl (yea I know), but that choice did not imply leaving neighborhoods and communities out of the decision making equation, nor did it imply development before critical infrastructure was addressed. I suspect that people are closer to agreement on growth than it would appear on the surface.

"Additionally, meetings held at the library, as opposed to those held at Town Hall, are not recorded or broadcast on public access TV."   I need to point out -- as someone who has been part of lots of work sessions -- that a work session in Town Hall, or in any room with immediate video/streaming coverage, has been extremely rare over the past decade. 

From conversations with her, it's not my impression that Pam originated the idea for making work session start times the same as that for almost all Regular Business Meetings and Public Hearings. At least one new Council Member, and a number of residents who often attend work sessions, seemed to be the impetus for the change. Pam agreed that lining up the start times made plenty of sense. Since the work sessions are relatively short compared to many Council meetings, the later start time doesn't trouble this member. 


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