Elections » Candidate Questionnaires

Michele Berger

Candidate for Pittsboro Town Board

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Michele Berger
Full legal name, if different: Michele Tracy Berger
Date of birth: June 4, 1968
Home address: 93 Cynthia Lane, Pittsboro NC 27312
Mailing address, if different from home:
Campaign Web site: www.pittsborotogether.org
Occupation & employer: Associate Professor, Curriculum in Women’s Studies, Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science, UNC-Chapel Hill
Home phone: (919) 542-7417
Work phone: (919) 962-3908
Cell phone: (919) 444-3142
E-mail: mtberger@email.unc.edu


1. What is there in your public record or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be an effective leader? Please be specific about your public and community service background.

As a political scientist, I have spent most of my life studying how citizens become involved in politics. Now, I want to work on behalf of citizens in a place that I know and love--Pittsboro. I want to apply my knowledge and background of politics to the many issues that Pittsboro faces. Pittsboro’s municipal election is the most important election in the history of Pittsboro and Chatham County. I believe that Pittsboro’s potential as an economically innovative and thriving community has yet to be realized.

I am a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, writer, yoga teacher and coach. In all of my diverse professional roles I seek to develop people’s natural curiosity and problem solving skills.

I want to work with citizens to bring town government out of the 19th and into the 21st century. It is time for imaginative, open minded and innovative leadership. We need creative solutions that encourage partnerships across the county and with our neighbors. I am excited to be part of a ‘can do’ team that can form a majority with our Mayor, Randy Voller.

Since coming to the Triangle, I have worked with local women’s and community organizations on issues ranging from substance abuse to leadership development. For the last two years I have worked with a community health program fostering positive communication between mothers and daughters to prevent HIV/AIDS.

2. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I am a life-long student of two contemporary US social movements (civil rights and the women’s movement). Over the years, I have drawn strength and inspiration from understanding the historic struggles for dignity, equality and freedom. It takes courage, discipline, creativity and wisdom to wrestle with our political system to make it serve a greater number of people. It also takes courage to recognize our basic humanity, even when we disagree with each other. In both of these movements at different times, various leaders stressed that these movements were interconnected and greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, I try to look at political problems in an inclusive and holistic way, asking “How can everyone be helped?” and “Whose point of view am I failing to include? Who else needs to be heard from? Who else can I encourage to speak up?”

Unfortunately many politicians adopt a model of ‘divide and conquer’. They work on behalf of some and ignore others. My leadership approach is based on the words of Audre Lorde, a black, feminist poet who once wrote, “Divide and conquer in our world, must become ‘define and empower.’” I want to help define issues clearly and empower citizens to renew a vision for the future of Pittsboro. I am running for Town Commissioner because I believe that I can amplify the visionary leadership of Mayor Randy Voller and Commissioner Pamela Baldwin. They were elected two years ago on the Pittsboro Together platform. As a team we have an opportunity to break through the stagnation and negativity that has defined much of Pittsboro politics for the last three decades.

3. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

Affordable housing is one of the most and important and neglected components to the economic development of Pittsboro’s future. Pittsboro is unable to attract teachers, firefighters, police officers and community workers because affordable housing is scarce. When people think of affordable housing, they often rely on outdated, negative images and misperceptions. Affordable housing to me means developing quality rental units and single family homes that are attractive, affordable, high quality, and that use state of the art methods including green and healthy building techniques.

Mayor Voller and Commissioner Pamela Baldwin worked tirelessly to bring a quality affordable housing proposal before the board. The proposal required a minimal investment by the town. The county, however, would have made a $400,000 investment in this proposal. For the last thirty years the town board has voted down affordable housing and it did so again this spring. This is one example, among many that demonstrate the lack of cooperation of the town board with the county, and the town board’s indifference to the very real needs of its constituents. The county has identified affordable housing as an important regional issue. My decision to join the Pittsboro Together team was solidified after I witnessed the lack of cooperation between the town board and the county on this issue and the general disdain for working people in our community expressed by the majority on the town board.

4. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

The Pittsboro Together platform that I support espouses two important principles: open government and citizen participation in government. These two principles have been routinely violated by the current majority on the town board. It has been difficult for citizens to access elected officials via email (some don’t have published email addresses), to get public documents and records (Mayor Voller has spearheaded getting more public documents on the web), and to get heard (lack of space for large meetings). Many of the recent rushed decisions to approve various development proposals have had the appearance by many citizens of backdoor wheeling and dealing. This is unacceptable. Town governance cannot flourish without open government and citizen participation. I know that we can do better. The core of a just community is one in which citizens are not intimidated, apathetic or ignored. I and the other candidates on the Pittsboro Together team want to encourage an active and engaged citizenry that will be welcomed, respected and heard.

5. Do you support Chatham County’s proposed land-transfer tax? Why or why not?

I have decided not to take a stand on this issue because it is a county tax issue and does not affect Pittsboro’s tax revenues. The voters should decide, though I would have preferred having the question put on the ballot in the spring when more voters across the county would be more likely to vote and would have better access to the polls through early voting and more voting locations.

6. Residential and commercial growth will change Pittsboro’s landscape and residents’ way of life drastically over the next several decades. What are the pros and cons of projects like Pittsboro Place and River Oaks coming to town (or not)? Separate from individual projects, please explain your overall vision for Pittsboro’s future.

The issue in this election is the vision of Pittsboro and how we will grow and what values will guide that growth. Pittsboro Together, the newly constituted Economic Development Corporation and other community partners have been advancing a sensible plan regarding economic development that includes strategic growth from the downtown outward. Many of the approved and proposed developments that the majority on the town board has fast-tracked negate these plans and is a repudiation of obtaining citizen input of how the town should grow. The majority on the town board are not listening to the majority of people in this community who question uncontrolled growth as the key to Pittsboro’s economic future.

We have a treasure in Pittsboro including our walkable downtown, our natural resources (the proximity of great rivers), our long standing artisan community and local farmers who strive to provide healthy produce. These are the key elements of life in Pittsboro that attract new residents and keep locals in town. The residents of Pittsboro have a prime opportunity to help make Pittsboro a destination for diverse locally owned businesses and low impact tourism so that others can enjoy also our town. We should encourage “place-based” economic development. If we can make Pittsboro the kind of place where people are attracted to live, work and play and for tourists to visit, we can attract clean start-up high-tech and bio-tech companies and unique locally owned services and retail businesses. We also have the potential to attract and develop a “clean industry cluster” building on the success of Biolex and our nationally recognized business, Piedmont Biofuels. But, this approach requires implementing the Pittsboro Together “Smart Growth” platform.

During the next decade, I would like to see the special features of Pittsboro amplified through innovative public-private partnerships. I would like to see the town support and work with the Fair Association, Chatham Arts and other community groups seeking a rural living center and a downtown performing arts center. A rural living center would provide a space for learning, growth and celebration for Pittsboro and Chatham County. A performing arts center would be an investment in Pittsboro’s artisan history. I imagine that this center could host workshops, artist-in-residence programs, summer camps for children, festivals and more. I also would like to see our local farming community expand and flourish and for Pittsboro to develop and host arts and culture festivals, and outdoor recreational tourism.

7. The departure of the previous town manager was an ugly episode in town government. Now that you’ve hired a new manager, what do you want him to accomplish in the next six months? How about in the next year?

I work with the Public Executive Leadership Academy (PELA) through UNC’s School of Government. The PELA program provides city and county managers, their assistants, and key department heads the opportunity to learn more about themselves as leaders and to gain skills to lead and manage change in their communities. I would encourage participation in this program by our new manager and other town employees.

I and the other candidates on the Pittsboro Together team believe that it is worthwhile to understand the diversity of leadership and management styles. We would make it a priority to work with the new manager and other town employees to understand ‘best practices’ in implementing the vision we have articulated.

8. If you are incumbent, please share some self-reflection about the pros and cons of the job the current mayor and council are doing leading the town. If you are a challenger, critique the job the incumbents are doing.

Mayor Voller has been an excellent leader for the town, initiating unprecedented cooperation with the county and neighboring government entities for the betterment of Pittsboro. He helped attract nearly $1 million in grants to improve the town’s parks and recreation grounds. But he doesn’t have a vote on the board and he has not been able to persuade the “won’t do” majority on the board to accept county funding for affordable housing, to complete the land-use plan with citizen input, and to maintain and grow our critical water and sewer infrastructure. I share his vision for the future of Pittsboro and want to work with him and Town Board candidates Jim Hinkley and Gary Simpson toform a new majority to work with citizens to fulfill our common goals for Pittsboro.

The majority on the town board has broken an implicit and sacred contract of governance— they have failed to respect and listen to the citizens. They have failed to safeguard our drinking water and maintain our sewer infrastructure, failed to revitalize our downtown, and failed to nurture Pittsboro’s unique resources.

What happens when our leaders, people whom we have entrusted our faith and goodwill to represent us, continually fail to listen to us? Fail to involve us in decision making? And even fail to hold the most important meeting in Pittsboro’s history (a vote on the rezoning of land for Pittsboro Place) in a venue that the public can be adequately accommodated? I’m a political scientist by training and I study political participation—but no one needs an expert to tell them what happens when citizens are justly outraged—the people stand up and vote ‘do nothing leaders’ out of office.

In Pittsboro, we have roads that do not connect, we have government facilities that do not accommodate citizens, and we have leaders that fail to connect to us. We on the Pittsboro Together team want to connect the residents of Pittsboro to a new vision of Pittsboro. The Pittsboro Together team is a ‘can do team’ that will not shut the citizens out. We will open the doors for new opportunities, find venues that accommodate an active and engaged citizenry, and most of all we will listen to citizens in matters of town growth.

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