Adam Searing is probably running to be the next mayor of Chapel Hill. He’s also a demagogue who routinely spreads misinformation and appears to prefer creating rather than solving problems. 

We all know how FOX News operates. It whips viewers into a frenzy with information that is false but taps into their deep-seated fears, all in an effort to encourage them to vote for fascists and plutocrats. 

Searing’s approach is slightly different. He uses misinformation and plays to people’s fears to encourage them to vote for… Adam Searing. 

He would have us believe that only he can save us from scary outsiders like developers and consultants who are trying to change Chapel Hill. The subtext of virtually all his public communication – his newsletters, his questions to the town manager, his questions to town staff during Council meetings – is that the world has gone mad and he is the only elected official listening to and protecting real Chapel Hillians.   

Sound like any other demagogues you know? 

We’ve written a lot about Searing’s, shall we say, discomfort with honesty and distaste for local government that works for all. Not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, but at least five times. 

Yet here we are again. Let’s see what’s been going on since our last Tall Tales Truth Tracker.    

 Searing uses a lot of scary language in his last two newsletters

Here’s just some of what you should be terrified of, according to Searing: 

  • “moves to eliminate single family zoning requirements”
  • “gutting single family zoning” 
  • “bulldozing” parks for development
  • “housing families and children on top of our exposed coal ash dump” (Also not a consideration and a misread of the past ten years of work to assess the site.) 
  • “big-time Boston developers”
  • “a giant glass ‘wet lab’ in the middle of downtown”
  • “a town council that clearly isn’t listening to the citizens”
  • “Broken down fire trucks, police cars, garbage trucks, millions in more borrowing on the town credit card, and a huge tax increase”
  • An “approaching crisis regarding our ability to deliver critical services our residents expect”
  • “incompetent and biased consultants”
  • An “out-of-state incompetent planning consultant” 

Jesus. That’s bigly scary! But it’s Searing, so of course the list is a combination of half-truths, distortions, fearmongering, and his personal beef with Jennifer Keesmaat. 

Now that you’re scared shitless, Searing wants you to know you are not alone 

Searing looks across Chapel Hill and, like Trump on inauguration day, sees supporters everywhere. He often talks about hearing from his constituents. Remarkably, they all seem to agree with him. It appears that Searing defines “constituent” as “homeowners who, like me, don’t want Chapel Hill to change.”  

He tells us in his newsletters that there is “enormous community opposition” to building a municipal services building he coincidentally doesn’t want. Hapless residents are “always asking” him how to get town Council members to listen to them. Opposition to making middle housing easier to build, which Searing is against, is “building like a giant earthquake-created tsunami.” 

It would be one thing if Searing said “I’ve considered and weighed the perspective of all my constituents and as a leader in the community, here is my decision.” He doesn’t do that. He cherry picks who and what he hears and then suggests that his position is the overwhelming consensus of the public. It’s a bold move for someone who received fewer votes than anyone else elected in 2021 and is supported by the unpopular anti-development and anti-change organization CHALT.  

Searing has a… um… unique take on transit-oriented development (TOD) 

In his newsletter, Searing talks about how he’s totally on board with the town’s Shaping Our Future plan, which “supports vibrant, walkable development in areas identified for growth across Chapel Hill, including the [North-South Bus Rapid Transit] corridor.” That is, except for the part about building vibrant, walkable neighborhoods along the transit corridor. Searing apparently wants to keep our transit corridors low-density like they are today. Which is a pretty great way to make sure people keep driving everywhere, choking our roads, polluting our air, and warming the planet. 

He’s also weaponizing and twisting the purpose of the TOD plan. In his newsletter, Searing is trying to link density proposed in Shaping Our Future – which would only apply to a quarter mile radius around bus rapid transit stations and focus areas identified in the future land use map – to the Housing Choice proposal, which would enable gentle density town-wide. Density close to the BRT line makes perfect sense and is the only way to make it a viable alternative to car travel. It would be deeply concerning if town staff didn’t recommend density near BRT stations.

Fortunately, the rest of the Council appreciates and understands the importance of TOD – they voted to support the Shaping our Future recommendations 8-1. Searing was, of course, the lone objector. 

Searing has a… um… unique economic development policy position

We have written about the risks to Purple Bowl a couple of times. The wonderful small business could be displaced by the development of a wet lab downtown. We believe it’s a challenging but solvable problem – and one that, once solved, will ultimately bring tens of millions of dollars of commercial tax revenue into Chapel Hill. Done right, it can both diversify the town’s revenue streams and keep local, quirky retail shops in our downtown. Searing apparently disagrees. He’s not even going to try to solve this dilemma. In his latest newsletter, Searing justifies his defeatist approach by noting that Purple Bowl employs people, and when he was a kid, he had a job at a bike shop. Cool story, bro. 

Searing is positioning himself as a steward of your tax dollars, but…

See above. Searing is so fiscally savvy that he’s willing to forego a new wet lab that would probably bring in close to $1 million in annual tax revenue to the town (which is just what the town has been saying for years: that it needs to diversify our tax base) because he worked at a bike shop as a kid. And he wants to have the town pay to operate a bus rapid transit system that, if he had his way, would have few riders because he doesn’t want density along the transit line.  

Searing has ideas on how you can advocate for things he wants 

 This one is honestly just bizarre. After again trashing his colleagues on Council by suggesting that they don’t listen to residents, Searing offers what he calls “Adam’s New Chapel Hill Town Council Advocacy Guide.” First of all, gross. Second of all, the guide sounds suspiciously like how CHALT prefers to engage Council: in-person meetings and phone calls (a big hint as to who may have helped write the guide is the patronizing entitlement oozing out of its declaration that Council Members “are paid about $20,000 of your tax dollars every year to work for *you* and a big part of their job is to meet with folks who have concerns about town issues”).

Interestingly, emails to Council are discouraged in the guide, especially emails to Council’s public inbox, which are visible to everyone. Why would a Council Member discourage a more transparent way of communicating with the Council? 

The guide also encourages you to write an op-ed to the Local Reporter, which Searing served on briefly as an advisory board member. The paper’s entire three-member board have all held leadership roles within CHALT, and their ethical lapses are so many – and so egregious – that they are no longer members of  both the Institute of Nonprofit News consortium and the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers association, which is a fete I understand to be unparalleled nationwide (and is largely due to our ongoing reporting on their ongoing shenanigans.) 

One helpful recommendation in “Adam’s guide” is a shop where you can get yard signs printed. Knowing how much Searing values local small businesses and how he feels about “big Boston” firms, I looked it up. It’s owned by a $2 billion global conglomerate based in Dundalk, Ireland. That’s out of state. Scary! 

Notably absent from the guide? Any mention of how the town can better engage those who are underrepresented in our local decision-making processes, i.e., BIPOC, students, and renters, all of whom are also Adam’s constituents. I’ve just never heard him refer to them as such.   

Searing loves a gotcha moment

Searing is an attorney, which is bad enough in and of itself, but he treats Council meetings like the last 10 minutes of every LA Law episode – and town staff and his colleagues on Council don’t know they’ve been cast to play the villain in his little drama. 

The video below is a good example of how Searing treats public service. First, a couple notes for those who may not watch a lot of these meetings:

  1. Council members regularly ask the town manager questions in writing about items on upcoming Council agendas. For most Council members, this is a good opportunity to learn more about complex topics ahead of Council meetings so they are better prepared to make decisions.
  2. During Council meetings, the order of discussion is typically staff presentation, then clarifying questions from Council members, then public comment, then Council discussion and a vote. Clarifying questions are meant to be just what they sound like – a chance for Council to ask questions to presenters when something is not clear. 

For Searing, these are opportunities to score political points

The agenda item discussed in the video clip is funding a long-needed municipal services building. It’s not a sexy topic for anyone but Searing, who sees not one but two opportunities to scare us all. First, he wants you to believe the town is hellbent on building housing alongside the municipal services property, which isn’t true. (The site, which is where the police station is now, has been stymied by the discovery of coal ash underneath it a decade ago; in response, the town has been working on a remediation plan with the state and environmental consultants and has no plans to build anything until the site has been remediated.) Second, he wants you to be afraid that by building the building, the town won’t have the financial resources to be able to provide essential services like fighting fires and picking up trash. 

With that in mind, look at the questions Searing submitted to Town Manager Blue about a variety of topics that Searing (and, coincidentally I’m sure, CHALT) cares about: whether we are building too much housing, whether we can reduce spending on transit, and whether taxpayers are paying too much in taxes.

Now, watch the video below, which picks up as Searing is asking “clarifying questions” to town staff. Here’s what I see:

  • Searing asks questions he knows (or should know) the answer to. He’s not asking clarifying questions, he’s trying to get town staff to answer in a way that allows him to go back to “his” constituents and tell them more scary things. In this case, you can imagine him saying in his next newsletter “town staff refuse to say they won’t build housing on a mound of coal ash. That’s just wrong and I will fight that!” 
  • Searing gets annoyed when town staff, who I assume know exactly what he’s up to because they know how often and how recently he has been briefed on the town’s budget, won’t tell him what he wants to hear. 
  • He asks no questions that suggest he’s trying to help solve the problem. He’s just stockpiling grievances. 
  • He asks questions about budgetary needs to get them on the record – again, he knows the answers – presumably because the topics sound scary, like how many broken-down fire trucks we have. He’s not clarifying, he’s using town staff to develop future political messaging.
  • I see town staff who shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of crap handling it with great professionalism. 
  • I see Jess Anderson stepping into the role of a defense attorney, protecting the town staff and Council members that Searing is prosecuting.        

Searing continues to call Jennifer Keesmaat incompetent

As we’ve written about before, Searing really really doesn’t like Jennifer Keesmaat, the expert consultant hired by the town to help develop the complete communities framework. Putting aside that Keesmaat is in no way incompetent, there are more professional ways to handle conflicts with a consultant than publically trashing her not once, not twice, but three times, especially if you are an elected official. 

What Searing either doesn’t understand – or doesn’t care to understand because he’s more concerned with scoring political points – is that by trashing Keesmaat he’s also trashing the town’s ability to hire consultants in the future. 

I can’t speak for Keesmaat’s reaction to Searing but I can tell you mine. I consult nationwide to help local governments address their housing challenges. It’s a small industry, and people talk. I recently had a request from someone with the town to share a housing-related consulting opportunity with my network, which I gladly did, including with a firm that does excellent work and would have been a great fit. But that was before Searing decided to blast Keesmaat in his newsletters. Now, not only will I not encourage colleagues to consider consulting gigs with the town, I will make sure that if they do consider them that they know their reputation will be at risk if Searing doesn’t like their demeanor or recommendations. 

Searing spends more time misinforming and inflaming community members than on his actual Council responsibilities

Council members are assigned advisory boards to attend and liaise with. Searing doesn’t attend the ones that are assigned to him. (We asked people on the ones he’s assigned to and observed videos of others.) He routinely leaves meetings early and can’t point to a single accomplishment in his year+ time on Council.

Why don’t you guys pick on other Council Members like you do Searing? 

It’s a fair question and an easy answer. We have policy differences with the Mayor and every single member of the Council. Heck, four of them have been endorsed by CHALT in the past! Still, no one but Searing treats public service like a team sport. They may make mistakes in our eyes, but we recognize that they are making difficult tradeoffs and trying to solve problems. Searing, by contrast, seems to relish being a problem. 

Mark our words, this won’t be the last Tall Tales 

The Greene Tract is coming back soon. It’s an issue that Searing’s used to launch his campaign for Council – and it was also our first introduction to his fabrications and his penchant for policies that are closely aligned with his personal hobbies and preferences. We will unfortunately and exasperatingly be paying close attention.



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,...