Leadership foibles obstruct process

Chapel Hill Herald
Saturday, December 11, 2004

On Monday night the Chapel Hill Town Council once again grabbed division from the jaws of unity. As was the case with the Airport Road renaming six months ago, the council seemed largely in agreement about the repairs that are needed for the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. Disagreements arose on how to schedule and pay for them. Somehow, once again, a 5-4 vote resulted.

Political observers who make a fetish of looking for divisions on the council tend to overlook the fact that this council usually operates near consensus. Monday night, after the cemetery vote, they went on to consider a number of issues including some potentially thorny questions regarding the university. The votes were unanimous.

Those fostering incivility, name-calling, and divisiveness on the council should have been called on it by Mayor Kevin Foy. The mayor is supposed to run the meetings in an effective, inclusive, and deliberative manner. Usually, he does a better job.

Particularly egregious was the manner in which Foy allowed Edith Wiggins to act out at the end of the discussion. As has been widely reported, Wiggins accused the entire council of vindictiveness and Bill Strom of racism. A Chapel Hill Herald editorial referred to Wiggins' comments as "ugly and unjustified."

Foy should not allow unsubstantiated charges of racism or vindictiveness to pass among council members. He might have reminded Wiggins that Strom received the support of the Hank Anderson Breakfast Club in last year's election and has been a strong supporter of racial justice.

In addition, Foy forgot his role as facilitator of the council's deliberative processes. He did not allow full discussion of a possible $40,000 savings identified by Cam Hill. Nor did Bill Strom's desire for a more thorough planning process receive proper consideration. Instead, Foy rushed the council to a vote.

With Foy's acquiescence, Dorothy Verkerk, chair of the cemetery committee, tried to curtail discussion by insisting that it would be "very, very offensive" if the council did not fully adopt the committee's recommendations.

Verkerk knows full well that committees exist to advise the council, the latter being our accountable elected decision-making body. She seemed to forget that last June she herself voted to ignore a unanimous recommendation from the naming committee on the Airport Road issue.

Verkerk went on to dismiss any disagreement with her committee on the grounds that one committee member "has a higher degree in historic preservation. I'm not aware that anyone on this council or anyone in this room has that degree." Verkerk cared little for the opinion of the expert ironworker who questioned the committee's cost estimates. To her, he is just "some local guy."

This is rank elitism of the worst sort and unbecoming of a Town Council member. The holder of an advanced degree usually is knowledgeable, often has insight, but is not necessarily right.

That Wiggins and Verkerk went to bat for the university's Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies is not surprising. They, along with university employee Jim Ward and the ever-deferential Ed Harrison, have been reliable votes in the university's pocket.

The university connection has dominated the cemetery process. The funds originally became available as a way to soothe the conscience of supporters of the 2003 parking deck and chiller plant approval. The council allowed the university to appoint half the committee members. Verkerk's degreed expert is also a university employee.

Verkerk, her committee, and Wiggins seem to have snookered the council on the Di/Phi question. This is not the moribund organization that has been implied. Its Web site indicates an active organization, ironically with a business meeting the same night as the council's. Dozens of Di/Phi alumni stay in touch via the organization, giving credence to Mark Kleinschmidt's suggestion that a fund-raising effort was possible.

The Di/Phi Foundation has financed major renovation work as recently as the late 1970s. Its "current projects include compilation of a new alumni register for the first two hundred years, restoration of the two cemetery plots, and the microfilming of the archives to make them more accessible for research."

Verkerk and Wiggins once again served their employer or former employer well, directing half of UNC's contribution back to a university affiliate. In doing so, they used their claims of elite prerogative and outbursts of incivility to drown out Kleinschmidt's fund-raising idea and prevent discussion of Hill's proposed cost savings.

As for Foy, he has allowed an affront to council procedure and prevented the council from talking an issue through to its best conclusion. For all their various virtues and shortcomings, all nine council members were elected by the citizens of Chapel Hill. One can only believe that full discussion and consideration of all their perspectives will lead to the best result for the town. Foy's job is to aid, not obstruct, those deliberations.




Thank you, Dan. You have articulately stated a lot of ideas that have been bouncing around in my head lately. Good point and well put!

I just hate it when liBerals argue.
They never really accomplish ANYTHING!

All ya'all saw what happens to obtructionists on a national level.

GWB deserves a spot on Mt. Rushmore.
A conservative on the town council/county commision could cut taxes 10 percent ; - )

Thin the herd!

"I did not raise the question of institutional racism; Edith Wiggins did"

Actually, it was Yonnie Chapman who raised the issue, and Sally Greene perpetuated it with her presentation about public funding.

"The mayor stopped the downward spiral, which I think was a wise decision."

Thanks for your comments, Terri. You've articulated this much better than anyone else on this blog. And, you did it without being obnoxious. Congratulations!


I do think they should continue discussions of institutional racism, but I don't think there was a chance in hell of anything positive coming out of further discussion on Monday night. As Donna said, it was not Edith who raised the issue of racism. By the time she made her comment, it was clear the discussion had no where to go but down. The mayor stopped the downward spiral, which I think was a wise decision.

When the mayor postponed the decision on renaming Airport Road, you were critical of that decision as well. So in one instance (per your editorials/comments here), further discussion was needed and in the other instance further discussion was weak-kneed.

If further discussions of racism are to take place, they should NOT in my humble opinion be intertwined around other controversial issues. If we want the larger community to engage in productive discussions, the discussions need to be inclusive not exclusive. To me, Edith's solution was inclusive.

While I'm on a roll here, let me just add that I think bringing in new 'expert witnesses' to the 3rd public meeting rather than asking those experts to talk privately with the committee before going public was the biggest flaw in the process. Of course, I appear to be the only one who thinks the work of a volunteer committee should be respected, but I see the public introduction of alternative solutions to the fence repair as spit in the eye of the citizen volunteers. That action more than anything else was the evidence I used to agree with the Herald's editorial that this conflict was more about personality clashes than about the cemetary or the money.

Wow, Dan.

You begin by admonishing "Political observers who make a fetish of looking for divisions on the council". You then go on to foster the very division you say doesn't exist!! Ward, Harrison, Verkerk and Wiggins are "in the university's pocket." As a current employee and a former employee, Verkerk and Wiggins "served their employer or former employer well." You did it again on the other thread! This hole's so big you can drive a truck through it.

Please be specific about how you think Verkerk and Wiggins are being rewarded for their loyalty. If, as you say, the council operates near consensus on most UNC issues, what is the reward for the other memebers of the council, including your friends S, K, H and G?

I wish the political dissent on this blog/in this community could be kept at disagreement rather than having to resort to name calling, challenges of integrity, and insinuations of racism.

If you really believe that the additional funds awarded to the cemetary are wasteful, then why not pursue that argument instead of challenging the ethics and loyalties of individual public servants. As Donna says, if you believe that there is generally consensus on UNC issues, then why spend so much time on one issue in which there is dissent?


I've been called a racist sexist homophobic bigot for 7 years. If it's not true---GET OVER IT!

In Christ,

I did not raise the question of institutional racism; Edith Wiggins did. It was used in part to end debate on the Council.

Do you really think that this should not be discussed? How does that jive with your usual advocacy of better processes for democracy.

Do you remember how Republican house staffers staged a near riot in Miami in 2000 to stop the recount? A similar tactic was used in our own council meeting and you ought to care about it.

You want there to be a discussion of the issues but are ready to overlook the fact that discussion on the Council was disallowed. It is much more important that the council discuss these issues than that we do so on this blog (not that we shouldn't do so as well). If council members are not allowed to raise concerns and have them addressed then those of us who care about democracy ought to be protesting loudly.

Dan's criticism of Edith (and the Mayor) seems to be the main element he points to in this debate. However, in my mind, Edith of all people on the Council has the wisdom, if not the privilege, to express and opinion on institutional racism. She should be respected for it in fact! The REAL issue is not what Edith said, it is the behavior of the 4 people who voted against this needed work on the cemetary (Bill the lead "Swashbuckler," Sally, Cam and Mark - the 3 Muskateers). That 4-nay vote was the divisive part of this whole episode which was marked by a pettiness on these folks' part.

I don't believe that their concern was over the money; it was really about some sort of political revenge. Keep in mind, these 4 are part of the 20% budget increase Ruby notes in a separate entry on this sight. So, Bill is no stranger to leading the expenditure of the Public's money. What sense is there in going after a sanctioned well-thought-out publically sanctioned committee's recommendations?

Amen to Terri's comment. You are not the only one who feels that way.


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