Sunday, December 31, 2006


Each year at this time, we read in the papers about the top stories of the year that’s ending. Some papers and news outlets even have contests to see if someone in the general public can pick the same set as they did. We also see the stories about resolutions for the next year.

I want to do it a little differently, so I’m offering you my pick of the top five stories that I would like to read in 2007. Heck, it could turn out that I’m 100% wrong, but writing an opinion piece means that no matter what you write somebody, or a bunch of some bodies, are going to say that you’re wrong anyway! So, let’s get to it.

1. After a magnificent victory by the Tar Heels over Wisconsin in Atlanta on April 2d, the Lady Heels defeated Maryland in Cleveland on April 3d. No longer are the Connecticut Huskies the only Division I school to claim both men’s and women’s national champs. Because of the victories, UNC insignia sales put the Heels back in first place over that school in Texas. Now people can stop scratching their heads trying to figure out why so many people would want to wear burnt orange in the first place.

2. Mr Axel Rhodes, a long-term employee of the State Department of Transportation’s Pavement Management division, received a significant cash incentive award for his recent suggestion adopted by the department. Mr. Rhodes explained his idea this way: “Well, I was thinking one day when I was looking at the list of outstanding projects and some looked real familiar to me. So, I thought, why not do like the song says and adopt a new attitude. That became my suggestion —— why not get a new attitude and do it right the first time!” As a result of his suggestion, the DOT will save millions and the jobs on the task list will only appear once, since they’ll be done right the first time. Travelers on I-40 will be happier than pigs in slop, as will those who have endured shoddy work on Seawell School Road when it wasn’t done right the first, second, third, or …

3. Coach Butch Davis’ team brought out the Tar Heel fans from wherever they’ve been hiding, making the first game a sell-out. The team responded to the show of support by going 10-2 over the season and earning a bowl bid. As expected, the Tar Heel faithful will flock to Charlotte for the bowl game and tickets on the various Internet sites are going for over $4,000. Even some of the most severe critics now acknowledge that football can coexist with basketball and a coach earning a competitive salary can make a difference. When asked about this, Athletic Director Dick Baddour said, “I let the results speak for me.”

4. The soft refrains of that great song of togetherness could be heard emanating from the Friday Center as the participants on the Carolina North Leadership Advisory Committee joined hands and sang “Kum ba yah” with gusto. What caused this unexpected occurrence? The committee, after months of discussions and debates, agreed that the proposals for Carolina North will be a benefit to the community and the areas of concern can be worked out. As one participant put it, “We have all come to realize that everyone gains when we collaborate and work together rather than pursue narrow interests or personal agendas.” UNC officials were delighted with the work of the committee and between verses, thanked all of the members for their hard work that will bring a world-class facility to Orange County, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. After the last verse, an observer quipped, “I can say that I was there the day sanity won out over absurdity.”

5. The newest high school opened in the Chapel Hill–Carrboro Schools District with an enthusiastic crowd on hand to witness the ceremonial opening. Smaller than the other two high schools in the district, and without a senior class, students were enthusiastic about being part of a student body that will establish new traditions for those who follow to build upon. As one freshman put it, “Well dude, when you build a new school, somebody has to attend it. Redistricting sucks, but isn’t that a rule of gravity?” Other students expressed similar thoughts, as did some of the parents. The Superintendent of Schools observed that he was glad to lead a school system in a community that understood the complexities of redistricting and was committed to making it work.

Whatever the top stories of 2007 turn out to be, I wish you and yours the very best in the new year that will hopefully be one of peace. Dreams may be a waste of time but having the luxury to dream is a good thing.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


As the popular song proclaims, “It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” Like so many others, we have family traditions that makes this season so special and meaningful. In our case, we blended traditions that we grew up with and started new ones as a family.

One tradition that we had was making a gingerbread house. It was a messy, sticky, and gooey process but every year we enjoyed the houses that we built. Part of the fun was eating the “building” materials as we built, and the four of us each decorated our side of the house to suit individual tastes. Fortunately, my wife took care of the front and it, of course, always looked the best.

After years of being “homebuilders,” we dropped that and picked up a new “family togetherness” tradition — chocolate making. We perfected our process after a lot of trial and error. The kids loved making candy for their friends using their favorite molds. Recipients were always impressed with their gifts and the kids never revealed how easy it really was, once you knew what you were doing.

My role in the process was to handle product distribution; I moved the filled molds to and from the refrigerator and made sure they didn’t stay in too long. Other jobs that I lost to the more skilled workers included melter, pourer, and extractor. Everyone else seemed to handle these responsibilities with more expertise than I. Now that there are only two of us making the chocolate, I still specialize in the refrigerator runs. By the way, if you start this tradition in your home, note that there are two drawbacks: first, you tend to sample too much of your product, and second, the house smells like chocolate longer than you will want.

Another tradition is our ornaments. Each year, everyone gets an ornament that has some special meaning for that year. It’s fun to spend some time pondering just what will be the right ornament to give. The nice thing about this tradition is the kids have a collection of ornaments that they can use on their family tree and each ornament has special meaning.

As the kids were growing up, it was also our tradition to spend the holidays with their grandparents. One year, we would spend Christmas with my wife’s parents here in North Carolina, and then go the next week to my parents in Pennsylvania. The next year, we would reverse the order, and then the next year everyone would come to our home. The pattern pretty much held except for those years we were in Hawaii.

Christmas in Hawaii is a truly unique experience and added a new tradition. Not only did the temperature being in the 80s make it different, but spending part of the day on the beach made it special. Santa Clause, in his short sleeve and short pants suit, roams the beach tossing candy to the kids and wishes everyone ‘Mele Kalikimaka’, Merry Christmas. Santa knows how to surf, parasail, and snorkel and it’s not unusual seeing him enjoying the day engaged in recreation. My young daughter fully understood that he was just relaxing a little after working so hard all night.

Shopping for just the right gift is also a family tradition. I participate two ways. First, I respond to questions about what is the right gift for family and friends. Second, I buy a present for my wife. Fortunately, my wife understands that I hate shopping so she doesn’t force me to do any. I’m a buyer, not a shopper. I hate going into the malls, and especially at this time of year.

As a buyer, I identify what I want and go buy it. I make every effort to buy locally, and I will admit that I now do more and more of it online. I will go to my three favorite “toy” stores, you know, the two home improvement places and the one that sells Craftsman tools. It’s not shopping when you go to those places, it’s just conducting a survey prior to buying. My wife swears that I just refuse to say that I was in fact “shopping,” but I continue to hold my ground.

Well, I realize that I am very fortunate to have a wife who won’t force me to go shopping and is so understand of my “hang up,” as she defines it. So in the spirit of the season, we continue our traditions and our well-established roles that have served us well these almost 39 years.

And in the spirit of the season, I wish one and all much peace, joy, and happiness and a wonderful holiday in the tradition that you practice. For those who share my belief, I wish each of you a very Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 17, 2006


On December 4th, the Chapel Hill Town Council received the report and voted 8-1 to move forward on the Lot 5 redevelopment project. If finally approved, it will be a 243,000 square-foot complex with 137 condominiums and 29,000 square feet of retail space. With this vote, Town Manager Roger Stancil has the green light to work out the details with Ram Development.

Throughout this process, a Town Council negotiating committee chaired by Mayor Pro Tem Bill Strom has worked long and hard negotiating with Ram Development. The council members on the team have delved into the financial model, the look of the project and numerous other details during this period and brought a proposal to their colleagues that they thought was in the best interest of the Town.

Something that I haven’t heard discussed about this project and how it was negotiated is one particular message this process sends to our citizens. How many citizens can afford to spend the kind of time that council members invested in this process, let alone all of their other duties as a council member?

With the Carolina North process looming, it is fair to assume that our elected leaders will be called on to devote a lot of their time and energy to the UNC project. With more and more added to their plate and little or nothing coming off, I fear that we will be led by only those who can devote tremendous chunks of their time to governance. Is this what was envisioned with the council-manager form of government?

Let’s review a little history. Council-manager government was a response to the bad old one-party political machines that ran many city governments by the beginning of the 20th Century. Party politics and corruption prevailed and were barriers to fair and professional local government. Partisan elections, dominated by local political machines, limited candidates to only the party regulars and the patronage system prevented qualified people from serving in local government leadership positions.

The ceremonial mayor and the council members are the leaders and policy makers representing the community and concentrate on policy issues in response to citizen needs and wishes. The professionally trained manager is appointed by the council to carry out policy and ensure that the entire community is properly served. If the manager in question does not respond to the governing body’s wishes, the council has the authority to dismiss that manager at any time.

So in theory, citizens did not have to be subject matter experts in the wide range of things involved in running a town or city. Rather, the elected citizens were expected to employ their native intelligence and common sense to make policy decisions. The manager would bring the product of the staff’s efforts to the council for approval. The council would set the policy and evaluate the performance of the manager as the leader of the professional staffers. The council would not hire or fire anyone other than the manager, and in our case, the attorney also.

It’s easy to see why the majority of local governments have adopted this model. It just makes good common sense to have the experts responsive to citizens who were elected by their fellow citizens to make policy and oversee their government. This had to be better than the days of the power brokers who thumbed their nose at those who wanted to know how the money was spent or how decisions were made.

So is it just today’s complexity that requires that our elected policymakers have to invest the kind of time that we are witnessing? How can someone simultaneously serve on committees like the Lot 5 negotiating team, serve as liaison to the numerous boards and commissions, serve on regional and intergovernmental committees, spend time listening to constituents, and prepare for regular meetings and work sessions? And if you make the time to do all of this well, can you have a job? Can you spend any time with your family? Can you pursue any other outside interests?

Clearly these efforts of our hard working and committed council members are important, but is there a more efficient and effective way? Does the Council create some of their own time commitment issues? Can more responsibilities be placed on the professional staff? Can the council members determine how to change positively the culture of the council that drives this situation?

I think it’s worth taking a hard look at how to make serving on the council a possibility for citizens who can’t make it anywhere close to a fulltime job. Maybe when the council has their upcoming planning retreat, they will consider ways to do this. Investing their time discussing this will be a good thing for our community.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Do you have any bowling shirts in your closet? Are they from a league that you participated in? At one time, I had four or five that were classics. I haven’t been in a league since the late 80s so it’s anyone’s guess where those shirts are now. After all, we moved more than a few times so they probably ended up in a give-away bag. It’s an interesting thought to imagine whom if anyone is wearing my “Crusaders” team shirt with “Fred” in a fancy script over the pocket.

The reason that I mention this is because on Monday, November 27th I was in a follow-up meeting for the Madison trip participants and others. Thinking aloud, I said, “"We don't take a lot of time to discuss, what is it that makes us a community? People would answer that question so differently. What unites us?"

The bowling comes in because Robert D. Putnam wrote a book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). Professor Putnam is at Harvard where he serves as the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy. I first met him when he was chair of Harvard's Department of Government, and later as dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The thesis of his book is this: he argues that we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. He also offers ideas on how we may reconnect. His “evidence” comes from years of research and the bowling analogy is used because, even though more people may be bowling, they’re not doing it in leagues like they once did.

He deals with something called our stock of social capital. This is the idea that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and “the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [‘norms of reciprocity’]”. From his nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century, he concludes that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. As for the cause, Putnam offers that changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles, and other factors have contributed to this decline of our social fabric.

I presume that you would not be surprised to learn that many scholars in a variety of disciplines strongly disagree with the Putnam thesis, and strongly. What about in our community? Can we see some support for his thesis here? We know that we have had pitiful voting turnouts, but the other aspects of his thesis may vary vastly within our community.

One aspect of interest to me is wondering if we have a good number of local organizations where the membership numbers might be up but few members are willing to serve in key leadership positions. My experience in the last few years is that when you ask someone to take a “key position,” they tell you how busy they are and they just don’t have the time to take on any more responsibilities. Do we avoid a higher level of commitment?

I guess that where I come down on this is believing that our community is more than just a geographical location. I see us as interconnected and interdependent while sharing a set of values and goals with others. Therefore, a community is not just the sum of the individuals who make it up, but something much more.

What then unites us as community? I presume that our personal experiences tell us that having something to unite us in no way means that we are united. Just ask people about the drama at their Thanksgiving or other holiday get-togethers. Family and friendship may unite them, but they are nowhere close to being unified. I could make a good case for planting yourself at the “kid’s table” and dealing with the more manageable drama there!

How many communities do we feel a part? How connected do we feel to others in those communities? Do we have a “community spirit,” positive attitudes, optimism, and a sense of loyalty? I personally am still struggling to get my arms around all of this.

I have concluded one thing however. The things that we rally around say a lot about who we are as residents of Orange County, Chatham County and their municipalities. Winning the Women’s Soccer National Championship may not actually unite us as a community, but I suspect that there is still great pride in what that “local” team accomplished. Let’s hope that our two great “roundball” teams can do it too — that will also lift our spirits and it will be another good thing for our community.

Sunday, December 3, 2006


What a Thanksgiving! With our two and a half year old grandson and his eight month old sister visiting (yes, they brought their parents along too), it’s been a really fun time. It’s something getting acquainted or reacquainted with Thomas the Train, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Sesame Street, Higglytown Heroes, and Little Einsteins, but what could be more fun?

As we sit on the floor of the family room playing and watching and laughing, the weather outdoors is no problem because of the warmth of our home. We have much to be thankful for and it’s difficult not to think how different the days and nights are for the homeless. Those parents and kids who have no warm home to live in are far too numerous.

Thankfully, we are trying to address the problem through the Orange County Partnership To End Homelessness. Key to any solution, however, is having a stock of housing that people with a range of incomes can afford to buy or rent. We like to call this “affordable” housing, but I prefer the label “workforce” housing. As with most labels, we need to be clear on what we mean. I think workforce housing should be affordable to the entire range of incomes in our community. It should simply mean that all people, and especially those who work here, can find a home to fit their budget.

While we were in Madison on the Chamber’s Inter-City Visit in September, we had a breakout session on workforce housing. Housing stalwarts Robert Dowling, executive director of the Orange County Community Housing and Land Trust, and Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment, Inc., led the session. We heard about the Madison approach from Bill Perkins, the executive director for The Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development, Inc.

Madison is in Dane County and they studied their situation and concluded that they had a serious problem. They found that to be able to afford the fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment required an hourly wage of $12.45, or $25,896 annually. Some 30% of their workforce made this wage or less. Some of the jobs represented included emergency medical technicians, restaurant cooks, home health aids, preschool teachers, nursing aides, and many others.

They also found that an income of $34, 100 was half of what was needed to buy their median-priced home in 2005. Sadly, 55% of their workforce made less than $34,100. Bus drivers, secretaries, dental assistants, maintenance workers, and police, fire and ambulance dispatchers were in this group in 2005.

So to buy that median-priced home in 2005, the annual income required was $68,200. They were distressed to learn that 94% of the Dane County workforce made less than that required income, and that included among others teachers, police officers, firefighters, mental health counselors, school counselors, and licensed practical nurses.
What’s the situation in Orange County? Sad to say, it’s generally worse. Did you know that in 2005, the median price for a single family home in Orange County was $286,000? Are our workers paid what’s required to afford that home? Not usually, so it’s no surprise that too many who work here can’t afford to live here. They live in other counties and must drive into Orange County everyday. Meanwhile, many who can afford to live here work outside of Orange County and they drive out every day. What’s wrong with this picture?

Our Community Housing and Land Trust, EmPOWERment, and Habitat for Humanity, are making a herculean effort to increase the housing stock so that our workforce can afford to live where they work. The Town of Chapel Hill also took a big step last September when they established a task force on inclusionary zoning.

With representatives from various constituencies including the development and real estate communities, the business community, nonprofits engaged in providing affordable housing in Chapel Hill, and interested citizens, they hammered out a proposal on inclusionary zoning that was presented at the Town Council Meeting on November 20th.

At its simplest, inclusionary zoning requires that a certain percentage of homes be set at officially "affordable" prices, along with market-rate homes in the same project. We need several tools that will work and this has the promise of being one of those tools. Stay tuned to see how this plays out, but remember, the solution to the housing situation cannot be placed entirely on our developers.

As those of us who can afford to enjoy our loved ones in our own warm homes, let’s remember that there are too many who can’t do the same in the community where they work. We have to do better, and doing that will be a good thing.