What a difference a day makes. (Actually, two days, but the point still stands). 

On January 18, Adam Searing cautioned us that Jennifer Keesmaat, one of the consultants hired to help implement the Complete Communities project, was pushing the town’s decision-making process to be more like that of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. The Politburo rules with absolute authority and no regard for democratic norms.  

By January 20, Searing unilaterally demanded that Keesmaat be fired. 

We are left to wonder what the fuck happened on January 19. Maybe Searing ate some expired Szechuan pork and wasn’t thinking clearly when he wrote a letter to the town manager that included a bunch of insults toward Keesmaat, calling her “arrogant” and “a dubious out-of-state consultant” and her proposed ideas to reform our planning process “anti-democratic.” In his January 25 newsletter, Searing called Keesmaat “incompetent” and “lack[ing] basic knowledge” of planning laws.   

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Searing call Keesmaat arrogant, I wonder if there is something deeper going on. 

Let’s back up a bit in case you don’t know who Jennifer Keesmaat is 

In a previous project, a different consultant (Rod Stevens) warned that Chapel Hill was not building the housing it needs and as a result risks turning into an east coast Palo Alto – exclusionary and very expensive. He encouraged the town to “hire a top-notch national or international planner and create several options for achieving the town’s goals.” In response, the Council asked Stevens to help it find “the top global talent in this planning field to help Council determine a path forward.” 

Note that Council was not looking for a consultant with deep knowledge of public meeting laws in North Carolina, which seems to be one of Searing’s points of contention with Keesmaat. But it would be boneheaded to hire an internationally-recognized consultant and expect her to know the ins and outs of North Carolina General Statute 160D. We have a very competent planning staff and town attorney who know what 160D requires and, since they are collaborating with Keesmaat, they can easily share that information with her as the Complete Communities project is refined. Searing is nitpicking, at best. 

As for Keesmaat’s competence, or lack thereof, she was the chief planner for Toronto for five years, which is widely regarded as one of the most liveable cities in the world. After leaving the city, she founded the Keesmaat Group, an urban planning consultancy that has worked with cities around the globe. Among other honors, Planetizen, a popular website about planning, called her “One of the top 100 urbanists of all time” (We do not know if Planetizen considers knowledge of North Carolina General Statute 160D when ranking global urbanists).

As for her possible arrogance, let’s roll the tape from the January 18 Council worksession. Listen to the language she uses to introduce her presentation. She uses “we” language, not “me” language. She talks about how her proposal is informed by a wide array of community stakeholders and coordination with other consultants and town staff. She makes clear that what she is presenting to Council is “a work in progress” and asks Council to “poke holes” and “identify things that don’t make sense” in her work. In other words, she’s presenting a draft for feedback, presumably from people who are familiar with North Carolina General Statute 160D. 


Now let’s look at the clip where Searing compares Keesmaat’s proposal to standard operating procedures in Communist China – and Keesmaat responds that his statement is “unuseful and wrong.” That didn’t go over well with Searing. (Why is he so emotional? Hysterical, even?) 

It’s rich to me that Searing, who to my knowledge has zero accomplishments from his time on Council and regularly spreads information that is flat out wrong, would call Keesmaat arrogant and incompetent.

Wherever could this be coming from?

Searing’s email calling for Keesmaat to be fired is likely heavily influenced by his benefactors in CHALT, the anti-development group (with a PAC) that helped him get elected. They’ve been very open about their dislike for Keesmaat in recent months. Three CHALT members have published op-eds (Virginia Gray, Pam Cooper, David Adams) — in The Local Reporter, a publication started by CHALT affiliates — critiquing the Complete Communities process for, among other reasons, only interviewing 40 people during the process. 

In their most recent newsletter – published shortly before Searing’s — they question if Keesmaat’s vision — one that encourages the council to pilot a new approach to planning, one that’s different from the knockdown, drag-out process that features eighteen months of meetings and a bunch of angry emails –  “can practically be achieved without harming the community.” 

Which community, praytell, would be harmed if our currently broken development processes work better and more efficiently? Not mine. Keesmaat’s ideas sound pretty great to me.

But perhaps not so great for CHALT, the group that tries to stall, stop, and drag out every development project in town. They are threatened by Keesmaat’s proposal to streamline the development review process and let our expert town staff use their expertise, and Searing – their lone rep on council – is making that clear. (We predicted their response last July.) 

Searing prides himself on speaking for his constituents. I am one of those, but I was not consulted about firing Jennfier Keesmaat. Were you? 

Since he didn’t ask my thoughts on the matter, I’ll share them here. Keesmaat is a total badass. She’s not arrogant, she’s right. And we’d be foolish to let the anti-change zealots force her out.

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Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...