OP Live Candidate Forum: Chapel Hill Mayor

Welcome to the Orange Politics online candidate forum. My name is Lisa Sorg and I am a freelance journalist and former INDY Week editor. Tonight, we will talk with the Chapel Hill mayoral candidates Mark Kleinschmidt and Pam Hemminger. Gary Kahn could not join us this evening.

I’ll post a new question every 10 to 15 minutes; candidates will receive 12–15 questions. I'll then ask for any closing remarks and any edits to posts. The forum will close no later than 9 p.m

Candidates, we’ll start with opening statements. Ready, set, go!

Thank you to everyone involved with Orange Politics for hosting this forum.

I am excited to be running for reelection as Mayor of Chapel Hill.  I am proud that our community is facing the challenges of this new century in bold, creative ways that build on our tradition of responsively adapting to meeting the needs of the future.  We have emerged from the recession with our Triple A bond rating intact, a reorganized town government that is more flexible at responding to the needs of our community, and Chapel Hill 2020 – a community driven comprehensive plan borne from the participation of over 10,000 people.  We have strong, new partnerships that are creatively addressing neighborhood stability, transit finance, regional transportation, and investment in our youth.  We are implementing policies to address our debt to the Rogers Road community and are collaboratively addressing our solid waste future.  I’m proud to be the current chair of our MPO, my service on the steering committee of the Mayors Innovation Project, and my service on the executive committee of the NC Metro Mayors Association.  I hope I have your support for another term.

I'm looking forward to the questions tonight.  Readers can learn more by visiting my website mayormark.org, or find me on facebook.

Thanks to Orange Politics for hosting tonight's forum.

I'm deeply committed to our community, serving for the last 30 years as a county commissioner and school board chair, as well as on many town commissions and numerous nonprofit boards. Professionally, I run a commercial property company that upfits existing buildings to make them safer and more efficient for my tenants.

I'm excited to be running for mayor because I want to fix the huge disconnect between the things we value and the decisions our leaders are making. I'm concerned that we're headed toward an unsustainable future, that we are pushing out the very people who made the town the special place it is, and that we're not being strategic about the development decisions we're making, especially in the mix of commercial v. residential we're approving.

I'm a collaborative leader who values the input of diverse voices, believing that brings stronger solutions. Unfortunately, I now see a community that is polarized, with community members and stakeholders with legitimate concerns marginalized by our leaders. It's my goal to bring us together to make the process work for everyone.

1. The main employers are in the public sector: UNC, school systems and the town government. But many job opportunities are also geared toward students: low-paying service jobs in the hotel, food service and retail industries.

How should the town work to diversify the employment base? 

We need to support conscientious development that encourages job growth in and among places where people also want to live.  I am proud of our partnerships that have created new opportunities for business development including the work that created Launch.  I am working closely with those partners right now to add to the entrepreneurial ecosystem to provide space for growing firms to land and stay in Chapel Hill.  We need to focus on new development in our community to create spaces where 21st century businesses want to locate.  We will never be able to offer the vast acreage of property and, what I think are overly large and often irresponsible, incentive packages.  While there is room for some small incentives, we know from the employers that they want to be in spaces that attract a strong workforce.  Therefore we need to keep our eyes on the ball and focus on creating spaces where new business and job opportunities want to locate.  Moreover, we need to understand our place within the region, while you identify the areas we are strong in including government and university jobs, we are no longer an isolated town on the fringes of the capital city.  We are part of a larger growing metropolitan region.  We must not pull up the drawbridge now as companies from around the country are targeting our region for relocation.  Focused redevelopment efforts, like the work we are doing in Ephesus-Fordham, have the potential to provide the space small tando mid-size companies want to be in.  In addition, we can’t just ignore the issue of residential development and assume the demand for new housing will just go away.  To do so insures increased unaffordability.  New spaces require that multiple uses – office, retail and residential, are threaded together to create the places where people want to work and live.

Some success over the last few years include retention of 3 Birds and the expansion of the Google in our downtown.  Our downtown - a place where employees want to work and live.

More commercial space will bring in more business opportunities and bring in more -- and more high-paying -- jobs. We've got an amazing resource in our diverse and highly educated population, and in the economic engine that is UNC and UNC Hospitals, but we don't have the commercial space that will attract new companies and retain growing ones. There are four things we need to do to grow our commercial sector:  1. We have to create the kind of spaces companies want, including larger, nontraditional, and more flexible space. 2.  We have to provide developers with tax incentives to build more affordable commercial space (as we did when I was on the BOCC), 3. We need to plan strategically to make sure we take advantage of the prime commercial sites that we still have, especially downtown (for example, if we approve even more student housing on Rosemary Street, that takes away our future commercial opportunities there), and 4. We've GOT to fix our permitting and inspections process so good and creative commercial developers will want to work in Chapel Hill again.

I just visited The Frontier, an incubator space in RTP, which offers a different model for creative incubator space and could support a wider variety and number of local innovators.  We need to pursue more such options to help grow our employment base.

I'm posting another question to keep the forum moving. (Play Jeopardy theme music.)

 Should Chapel Hill grow more slowly? What are the consequences of a slower pace? What are the consequences of a faster pace?

For years we were driving with our foot on the brake and lost opportunities for strategic commercial growth. Recently we've gone in the other direction, and have our foot firmly planted on the accelerator.

Growing smart means finding balance between these two extremes, it means being strategic in knowing what we need and knowing what's best for our long term sustainable future, and that means paying attention to details. Chapel Hill's progressive college town atmosphere is our economic development calling card -- it's what brings people here to live, visit, work, and invest.  If we lose that, we lose what's valuable and distinctive about our town.

It's not a question of fast or slow, but of smart and strategic, and getting the details right.  I believe development is what keeps our town vibrant and healthy, and have robust development that enhances our character, maintains livablity, and brings economic success.

I agree with the majority of respondents to the recent PPP poll – Chapel Hill is growing at the right pace.  To slow down our efforts would keeping others from being able to enjoy the great community we have built.  It would also exacerbate out affordability problem.  Of course, growing too fast means empty residential units, decreasing property values, and empty storefronts.  It’s a tough job to balance the pace of growth.  Counsel has been concerned about this issue for many years.  Fortunately, the people of Chapel Hill have chimed in.  In Chapel Hill 2020, the community identified not only the areas our town where growth would be welcome, but also began the process for detailing what we want those spaces to look like.

We know that efforts to halt growth in Chapel Hill also leads to a homogenization of our population.  Other communities have taken the halt approach and have created enclaves for only the wealthiest.  I reject this.  The true character of our community is, and has been, its people.  The welcoming tradition we have embraced in the past, that created a once diverse community, resulted in varying paces of development throughout our history.  We should remain true to that tradition.

Yes, Pam, the Frontier is lovely. And Mark, that's an interesting observation about Chapel Hill's place in the Triangle.

Following up on the previous question: Chapel Hill is often compared to Durham and Raleigh, which are experiencing significant growth in the tech and entrepreneurial sectors, and in the cultural amenities that those workers tend to demand.

What is the Chapel Hill brand and how should the town distinguish itself economically and culturally from its neighbors?

What does Chapel Hill offer that no other Triangle city can?

First, I want to be clear that I don’t see Chapel Hill in competition with our neighbors.  Together we have created a diverse metro region.  I see all three in a synergy that has placed our region at the top of every “best city” list out there. In fact, many of those lists shows Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill trading out the top spot frequently. 

Nonetheless, there are things we do better than our neighbors – those special characteristics that we bring to the regional table.  UNC is now the source of about 150 patents a year.  Each one creates an opportunity for a new business to develop, or an existing one to grow.  We are leaders in research and development, art and music, education (K-12 and higher education), community development and policies that keep us on the cutting edge of inclusion and social justice in the state.

To remain America’s quintessential college town and continue to be an important part of the growth of the Triangle, we must, and I’ll say it again, not pull up the drawbridge.

Chapel Hill is known thoughout the country as a center of progressive thought, a green and historic town, an exciting place for arts and dining, and a town that highly values education and supports excellent public schools. We also lead the Triangle in our commitment to environmental action like green building, recycling, and tough stream protections. We're also distinctive in that we chose to impose an urban services boundary, to make that our surrounding farms and rural areas aren't overrun by sprawl.

Given our size, we compete on a par with our surrounding communities in providing a lively food and arts scene.  We do that in a distinctive college town environment, the home base for one of country's most innovative universities. It's job to make sure that we build on these strengths and keep ourself distinctive.

Let's switch gears to address the needs of some of Chapel Hill's most vulnerable citizens: 

Is the panhandling ordinance achieving what it intended to?

How should the town achieve a balance between the business community’s interests and the rights of the homeless?

We've got to find a better solution that works for businesses, visitors, students, and the panhandlers themselves. The current system is not providing solutions for anyone.

The town recognizes that a multi-functional approach to resolving this difficult problem is necessary. With the opening of the new men's shelter, we'll be providing more and better services to individuals who now feel their only option is to panhandle, but is only one step in solving the problem. Our police officers do a good job of patrolling, but the enforcement issues are complex.

We need better collaboration with all the stakeholders --- the county, university, public safety services, merchants, and community members -- to help find the right solution for our town. Other communities face this problem too and have found humane solutions -- we need to look to their models to see what work for us.

These interests are not in conflict and I do not believe this is the proper frame for the issue. I am proud of our town’s approach to this difficult social issue.  Addressing the needs of the homeless, and the issue of panhandling is one that can only be successfully addressed by a broader community effort – not a ham-fisted response from government isolated from those who provide the services necessary to actually assist those who are living without shelter or find themselves asking others for money on the street.  Through our community policing effort, we know who is living or making their living on the streets.  During my time as Mayor, our police department was instrumental in creating the outreach court that connects homeless people and those at risk of homelessness who have been charged with a crime.  The court focuses on identifying and addressing the root of the problem instead of imposing judicial consequences.  This work is directly targeting the problem rather than merely passing an ordinance and declaring the “problem” solved.  To this end we support the work of the IFC, the Community Empowerment Fund and the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health who are helping people find shelter, develop employment skills and access the proven sustainable treatment they need.  The town is doing its role best when we respond quickly to disruptive behavior and connect people to these services.  If we do this well, the business community’s interests are addressed and people are helped off the street.  

 There are several bond referenda on the ballot this year. Explain your position on these initiatives; for example, do you oppose any? 

What are your spending/project priorities for each item, should it pass? streets/sidewalks, trails/greenways, sewer, solid waste and stormwater


No, I fully support the bonds.

The priorities for the bonds, if passed, are drawn directly from the plans citizens created in the Chapel Hill Bike Plan, the Park and Recreation plan, Greenways Master Plan, Streetscape Plan, stormwater plan and from their responses to our Community Survey. 

The solid waste bond would put Chapel Hill in a strong position as we work with Carrboro and Orange County to collaboratively address solid waste issues.  The stormwater bond will help us move forward on our watershed approach to stormwater management.  This approach is critical to addressing flooding issues that have impacted parts of town for many years. 

Among other things, look forward to new Park Rec administrative space, cultural arts space, Tanyard Branch and Morgan Creek greenway enhancements, miles of new sidewalks, and additional streetscape improvements in downtown.

I'm very supportive of all these issues, and there are many important capital items in the referendum, but we've got to prioritize how we implement each of these items.

Safety should be our highest priority.  That means that we make sure our sidewalks are safe for pedestrians and accessible to all -- there are vision-impaired and disabled citizens who tell me that broken pavements and obstructions make it dangerous for them to navigate the downtown. 

Next, we need to be proactive about dealing with our stormwater issues, because failure to address the problem now will cost us much more in state fines and retrofitting than in taking action.

I'm a strong advocate for parks, rec, and greenways for healthy living in our community.  I'd prioritize greenways, which give us lots of bang for the buck, contributing to both our transportation and recreation infrastructures.

It does make me concerned to see normal operating costs, such as road maintenance and bus replacement, which should normally be in the annual operating budget, placed on a bond issue. It's an important issue to address if we are to achieve a sustainable budget.

We here at OP are discussing our use of public transit. 

One of the advantages of Chapel Hill Transit is that it is free. Considering riders' hesitance to pay a fare, how would you ensure the financial viability of the system?

Fares are a red-herring.  If fares returned ridership would plummet and our ability to access funds from our partners in the state and federal government would be severely impacted.  Our fare-free system relies on a very special partnership of UNC, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  I am not aware of a transit system in the US that operates in this way.  Essentially, the UNC contribution allows the fares to be paid in advance.  As Jim Ward said in a recent forum, one of the great achievements of the last two years has been the work the town has done to improve the financial sustainability of Chapel Hill Transit.  After completing a study of our operations, we have developed new approaches to acquiring buses and have overhauled our administration to create new efficiencies and identify cost savings.

Some have argued that we should just go after the ½ cent sales tax passed by voters to support the regional light rail system.  But, voters supported it to fund the regional light rail system, not fund our local transit systems.  We fought hard and won the ability to draw some funds for general operations, but the statute clearly authorized the referendum for the purpose for which it is largely being used.  I support the efforts that are ongoing to bring this community goal to fruition.

As a commissioner, I voted for the half-cent transit tax, with the understanding that the money would provide more support to our bus system, including for the expanded evening and weekend service that will help make real transit oriented development possible in town.

We face the likelihood of diminishing state and federal funding for transit, so we'll have to work with our stakeholders and partners to help offset those lost revenues.  We should investigate negotiating a different percentage distribution of the transit tax with our GoTriangle partner to help insure the frequency and coverage we need, especially along major corridors. 

The redevelopment of our existing surface park and ride lots to include mixed-use commercial is one avenue we can explore to increase our revenue and help support our system.


As the state legislature continues to target UNC for budget cuts, the university could have fewer resources to devote to town-and-gown relationships, such as the $3 million loan for Northside.

How should the town plan for potential reduced support from UNC, whether it be jobs for residents or more direct resources?


Our UNC partnership is a special one.  They have shown a strong commitment to help us all create a stronger and better Chapel Hill.  One of the great and forward thinking approaches we’ve taken as our partnership has developed, is that the funds UNC is investing in the community are not coming from the state.  UNC is already working with fewer and fewer state dollars.  State appropriations account for less than 20% of their budget and that money is target to core academic operations.   When the dollars began falling, UNC found that greater investment in their own community actually enhanced their competitive advantage vis-à-vis their peer national research universities.  I actually don’t think we will see such a drop-off.

But, arguendo, should that day come and UNC ceases to be the partner they are today, it further underscores the work I and the Council have been doing to increase our position as a regional economic player. 

In addition to possible funding cuts from the state, we can no longer count on UNC to provide the same level of growth they have in the past, especially as the health care system decentralizes.

UNC is about to begin a major master planning process and will be looking at all of their properties. The town needs to have a major seat at that table and participate in discussions about land use decisions, economic development, and opportunities for us to work together to find ways to be successful in a reduced funding climate. We need to discuss where we're going with student housing in the community v. campus, and keeping town commercial properties occupied by UNC on our tax rolls.

We have lots of data that identify the types of businesses the university spins off and we need to have proactive discussions with them about creating better synergy to capture those business within our town and grow our commercial sector. 




This is our last question, and then we will open it up for closing statements.

Although the federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, it's well-known that this does not provide a living wage. Given the local cost of living what should the minimum wage be for Chapel Hill town workers? How can the town incentivize private businesses to pay a living wage?

Our Chapel Hill “living wage” for town employees is 7.5% above federal poverty, or $13.35 an hour.  This applies to all full-time employees.  But, as a recipient of the “ALL EMPLOYEE” listserv, I do not recall ever having seen a full-time job posting for $13.35.  I support our policy and the ongoing review and updating of it, because it was generated in cooperation with those who have been at the front of the fight for a living wage.   We keep these partners close and include them in our annual review of the town’s livable wage.  I am saddened that UNC is unable to do more.  This was topic of conversation between me and the former Chancellor and I will continue encouraging Chancellor Folt to join us in this committment.

Obviously, since we’re in North Carolina and not Washington or California, we cannot impose a town-wide minimum wage, but I think we can do somethings to incentivize and inspire others to follow our lead.  For example, any economic incentive we provide should require providing a living wage, and we should openly celebrate and promote those businesses that reflect this value like Vimala’s Curryblossum Café.  I was delighted to celebrate with Ms. Rajendran  last month when she received a $100,000 grant in part for her commitment to providing a living wage for her employees.  

Living wage advocates consider $15/hour to be the minimum basic pay, and there is proof to show that raising the minimum wage to a living wage doesn't cost employers more -- the difference is made up by increased employee retention and productivity, as employees feel more valued and economically secure.

The town and county have put a plan in place to achieve the $15 level, and other nonprofits are helping to encourage private businesses to do so as well.  The town, university, and hospitals should insist that the vendors they hire also pay a living wage to their full-time employees. 

I support the efforts of the local nonprofits who are working to educate employers about the benefit of providing a living wage and working to develop a program where businesses can promote that they are living-wage certified.

Because transportation is a significant cost in most families' budgets, maintaining fare free transit, and promoting workforce and affordable housing along our bus lines and near jobs, is an important component of affordability. Keeping taxes down with good fiscal management will also help keep our town liveable to a diverse population.

Mark and Pam,
Thanks so much for answering OP's questions. It's now time for closing statements.

Everyone, remember that early voting starts Oct. 22; Election Day is Nov. 4.

You can look at your sample ballot via the Orange County Board of Elections:


The real decision in this election is about leadership, decision making, and good governance.

I'm a collaborative leader who is committed to bringing diverse views to the table to find better solutions for our town.  I will pay attention to details and work toward a sustainable budget and promote the kind of strategic planning that will bring good things to our town.

Thank you again for hosting this forum and I ask for your support and your vote.  If I’m re-elected, I will continue to be a strong champion on social justice issues, both here and at the state and federal level; and I will continue leading the Council in a way that is consistent with our values of transparency, sustainability, and community inclusion. 

It has been such an honor serving Chapel Hill as its Mayor.  The bold vision of our community we have created together offers the chance for us to not only meet the challenges of today, but overcome those we can’t even anticipate.  Most of you know that I wasn’t raised here in Chapel Hill.  I grew up in the military far away from extended family.  When I arrived in Chapel Hill in 1988, I found the hometown I had yearned for.  Not only because it had already proven to me that I would be welcome when it elected Joe Herzenberg to the Council in 1987, but because all around me I saw people who shared my values – my concerns about public education (I was a public school teacher in 90s), social equity, and environmental protection.  Thank you for giving me a hometown.

I am proud that over the last six years, we have together been able to become a national model other cities are eager to learn from.  Last year when I hosted mayors from across the United States, they were eager to hear about how, in a Dillon’s Rule state, we were able to implement such strong affordable housing policies, create fare-free transit, include over 10 thousand people in our comprehensive planning process, and actually lower the cost of health care for our employees when others saw double-digit percentage increases.  To every question, my response included the valuable work that the people of Chapel Hill had done to make it happen.  It is the people of Chapel Hill who are leading our community; I’m just proud to represent it at this time.  


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