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.