People who live in Orange County are a fortunate bunch. They have a big state university that serves as a recession-resistant source of jobs, three lovely towns (Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough) that are making the most of their historic character, and spectacularly beautiful countryside that is maintaining its agricultural heritage while accommodating growth. The reason: Orange County's elected leaders are committed to good planning, protecting the environment, and paying for excellent schools. That's why, in the race to fill three spots on the Board of County Commissioners, The Independent recommends that voters return all three incumbents in the race: Alice Gordon, Stephen Halkiotis and Barry Jacobs. All have strong records on planning, education and the environment, and are seeking solutions to the problems that have emerged as a result of their successes: creating equity between the county and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems, diversifying the county's tax base, and maintaining a supply of housing that's affordable to the thousands of people who work in service jobs there, and even many academic ones. They provide the highest funding level in the state for public education; have passed ordinances opposing the death penalty and requiring the county and its contractors to pay a living wage; fought Progress Energy on expanding its storage capacity for spent nuclear fuel at the Shearon Harris nuclear plant; and were willing to raise taxes to make up for state cuts in funding for social services. And all three say they are committed to working hard to ensure that UNC-Chapel Hill develops its Carolina North project on the 900-plus acres of the Horace Williams tract in ways that are environmentally sensitive, limit use of automobiles, and offer housing that's affordable for some of those who will work there.
Gordon, who has served on the board since 1990, has made education and environmental protection her priorities. She has pushed spending money to maintain and renovate older schools so they're as good as the new schools that have been built with the last decade of rapid growth. She also was a strong advocate for creating advisory groups on water resources and environmental quality, and for creation of a county resource conservation department that helped establish the Lands Legacy Program that has begun purchasing hundreds of acres of land and conservation easements to protect farmland, water quality and create parks. She supports increased collaboration between the Orange County and Chapel Hill/Carrboro school districts, but opposes merger.
Halkiotis, who works in the school system and is the former principal of Orange High School, has been on the board since 1986 and is known for his cantankerousness and occasionally humorous asides (like when he recently answered a question about nutrition by confessing that he'd had some McDonald's french fries that day). He says education, protection of the county's water supplies and protection of the "rural buffer" around Chapel Hill and Carrboro are his top priorities. He worries that the Orange County school system is falling behind the Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools, and supports merger of the two school systems as a way to maintain fair and equitable treatment of their students. He says revitalizing old and abandoned buildings and factories are the best way to bring economic development to the northern part of the county, and cites the creation of A Southern Season's warehouse and catalog business in an abandoned factory as an example that the idea is working.
Jacobs, a freelance writer and caretaker of the Moorefields estate, is currently the board's chairman and its most dynamic force. His past work with the county's planning board and water authority have made him an expert in planning and environmental issues, and his beliefs (as portrayed in his 6,000-word response to The Independent's questionnaire) represent a primer on how good planning can be good politics. "We need to define the natural limits of growth--essentially sustainability but cast in less politically charged jargon--and make that the basis of our land-use planning," he wrote. "We must resist the demand for more reservoirs and for more development where infrastructure is not readily available." He credits his collaboration with other governments for successes such as the creation of Little River Regional Park, and says more collaboration with UNC is necessary to ensure that the Horace Williams property is planned in a way that isn't dependent on the automobile and meshes well with neighboring communities. He opposes merger of the county's two school systems right now, but supports construction of a joint central office building that would serve both systems, rather than each building its own. To pay for the effects of growth, he supports a real estate transfer tax and an impact tax for schools based on home prices rather than the current flat impact fee.
So, pity Keith Cook, owner of an insurance agency in Hillsborough who also is in the Democratic primary. Cook is a current member of the Orange County school board who has made economic development his theme. But it's hard to stack up well against incumbents as knowledgeable and right on the issues as these three.
Orange County School Board
Voters in Orange County who don't live in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district will vote to fill four seats on the Orange County school board. There are six candidates, and while there isn't a lot of agreement between them on the most important issues facing the schools, three candidates stand out for reasons that aren't entirely positive. That leaves three candidates who, while they may not agree on approaches, appear to understand the issues facing the schools and are willing to address them. The Independent endorses Betty Tom Phelps Davidson, Libbie Hough, and incumbent (and current school board chairwoman) Brenda Wilson Stephens.
The top issue facing the board is choosing a new superintendent to replace Randy Bridges, who was well-liked in the county and was North Carolina's superintendent of the year. He left to take over the school system in Rock Hill, S.C. But there are other, more long-term issues facing the board, most of them financial: Paying for a new high school and keeping up with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, which, as a result of their more rapid growth, are getting bigger increases in state and county money. The board voted this year not to ask county commissioners to hold a referendum on creating a district school tax (which the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools have) to supplement state and county money, and, if passed, would have been a step in the direction of ultimately merging the two systems.
Davidson is a former teacher who has two children in the school system. She says picking an outstanding superintendent is her top priority, and says she hasn't yet been convinced of the need for a district tax. She also believes that the school system needs to look at how much money it spends on administration, considering it is one of the best-funded systems in the state with a per-pupil expenditure that's twice the state average.
Hough is a former social worker who runs her own public relations agency and has advocated for foreign language instruction in elementary schools. She served on a school system task force that looked into a district tax, and she voted with the majority that said a tax with a maximum limit, a sunset clause and a classroom-only stipulation should be considered. That proposal wasn't feasible, and she says she supports letting voters decide, though she acknowledges the public isn't yet ready to do so. Instead, she cites the need to raise money from other places: private contributions, businesses, university partnerships, cost-cutting, and collaboration with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.
Stephens is the current chairwoman of the school board and is the director of the Orange County Public Library. She has tried to be a consensus builder on the board, and voted against holding a referendum on a district tax. She says she isn't in favor of merging the county's two school systems, because the only justification would be financial and that with the construction of new schools nearly completed and future enrollment growth, current funding problems should be resolved.
And the three candidates we can't endorse? Al Hartkopf, who campaigned against a school bond issue last year; the ultra-conservative Patrick Mulkey, who also has run for county commissioner; and Randy Copeland, who belongs to the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy and who, when asked if he supported helping build a just community in the Triangle, said: "I believe in an active community, but building a 'just' community sounds too much like socialism."
Orange County Sheriff
It's time for a change in the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Lindy Pendergrass has been the sheriff since 1982, but the combination of a poor diversity record and the candidacy of a strong opponent in Chapel Hill Police Lt. Tim Pressley are enough to sway The Independent that it's time for new blood. While Pendergrass touts an 80 percent clearance rate on crimes (that is, the percentage of crimes solved), Pressley points out that he's got a big force (125 full-time positions by Pendergrass' count) but less crime than in Carrboro, which has a force of just 37 positions. Many of the sheriff's office's positions are responsible for the courthouse and the jail, but Pressley makes a strong case that implementing his top priority--better cooperation between the sheriff's office and the police departments in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and at UNC--would help crime-solving in those jurisdictions. Pressley also talks about another form of cooperation that has been lacking in the sheriff's office--with the public and the media. He says he's had a hard time getting public information from the sheriff's office, having been "refused, harassed or directed elsewhere." That jibes with the experience of news reporters who have had trouble getting information from Pendergrass' sheriff's office.
Pressley has 27 years' experience, having worked in police and fire departments and a sheriff's office. He says he would make domestic violence a priority (a recent enforcement problem in Orange County), work to improve morale and retain deputies, and would use the county's personnel department to assist in receiving and evaluating job applications. And he goes one step further that's unusual for an elected sheriff, who answers to no one in government: He would work out a deal for the county manager to receive complaints about the sheriff's office. That may or may not be legal, or something that a county manager would even consider. On diversity, Pressley says there are no female deputies in the patrol and investigations divisions of the sheriff's office, and that he'd change that.
Pendergrass cites his high clearance rate, efforts obtaining grants for community policing and a domestic crisis unit and his efforts to combat child abuse and gang activity. He says he's working on a new pay study that should improve staff retention and is trying to improve the staff's diversity.
But maybe one of the new faces in the Orange County Sheriff's Office ought to be at the top.