For the first time in eight years, Chapel Hill will have a new mayor. We’re a different community than we were in 2015. We are facing unprecedented growth pressures and feeling the effects of climate change. Rents have surged and homeownership has become harder for young people to achieve. The racial disparities in COVID deaths and demonstrations after George Floyd’s murder have forced many white Americans to finally recognize that today’s inequities are deeply rooted in historical and systemic racism.
Chapel Hill has changed, is changing, and will change in the future.
This election is about what kind of change we want to happen. Do we want our community to become even more expensive, exclusive, and congested? Or can we imagine a Chapel Hill that is affordable, inclusive, and connected by buses and greenways?
When we thought about what candidates to support for town council, we also focused on change. Do we need leaders who promise to never change their mind, regardless of what happens? Or do we want leaders who can take in new information, adjust their priors, and, when the facts become clear, change their mind?
If we are looking for a Mayor who is willing to take in all the facts, consider the alternatives, and work with others to deliver the best outcome, Jess Anderson is the clear choice. Over the past two years, she has emerged as one of the strongest voices on the council for planning and growth that balances our needs for housing, transportation, parks,and greenways.
If elected, Anderson will lead a town council that will make consequential decisions for the next two decades of growth in Chapel Hill. With her commitments to the complete community framework, we anticipate that the Town will continue to make decisions that prioritize the development of an inclusive community that provides multiple transportation options and encourages the development of multiple types of housing, both affordable and market-rate.
It is important to note that the Blog Bloggers have not always agreed with Anderson. But one of the things we like about her is that she listens to everyone, even those she disagrees with, and we’ve seen her change over time. She understands the challenges the town faces with housing affordability and transportation. She has addressed these challenges with smart, evidence-based policies such as the housing choices ordinance and the Complete Communities framework. And we’re confident she’ll continue to update and revise those policies as circumstances dictate.
If she becomes mayor, we do not expect we will agree with every decision Anderson makes. But the last eight years have taught us that it is likely she will listen to our point of view, evaluate our concerns, and make a thoughtful decision.
Adam Searing, in contrast, has shown none of those qualities. Instead of deeply engaging in matters before council, he sticks to platitudes and often comes up with idiosyncratic reasons to vote no. He calls for more parks funding, but then votes no on a town budget because he doesn’t like the tax increases that were made, in part, to support parks. He claims to support affordable housing but votes against affordable housing projects. He fails to attend to his duties as a council liaison to advisory boards, does not meet with his colleagues on the council, and has shown no ability to build coalitions or work with people with whom he disagrees.
In fact, most of Searing’s campaign promises are about rolling back changes made by the current council, many of them made after years of deliberation, that over time will make our town more pedestrian-friendly, and more welcoming to residents of all income levels.
While Searing is correct that he and his slate, if elected, could potentially reverse some of the council decisions made in the last two years, we do not see any evidence that he has the ability to accomplish some of the goals he has set out in his campaigns. For example, Searing calls for an end to using consultants, but if we took every penny saved by not hiring consultants with local tax money (which would be a few million dollars, at best, or less than two percent of the town budget), we wouldn’t be able to accomplish a smidgen of the things he suggests. We wish Searing had worked on council to advance his policy objectives, and not spent his time showboating and alienating his colleagues. Given his record, and his campaign platform, we cannot support Searing for mayor.
We are especially pleased with the field of town council candidates this year, particularly given that just one incumbent (Amy Ryan) is running. We have five terrific candidates running for office, and regret that we can only endorse four of them.
Melissa McCullough is easily the most qualified non-incumbent running this term. She spent her career at the Environmental Protection Agency, focusing on environmental sustainability. She has also been active in local government and progressive nonprofits for many years, serving on the Chapel Hill Planning Commission, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill.
McCullough understands what it means to be an environmentalist and how local governments can make a difference given their limited capacity. We are particularly enthusiastic about her interest in implementing Chapel Hill’s Climate Action Plan, which was passed in 2021. Like many environmentalists, McCullough realizes that addressing climate change also means addressing affordable housing, public transportation, parks and greenspace, and accessibility via sidewalks and greenways. McCullough will be an excellent council member.
While Theodore Nollert has not been involved in town governance as long as some of the other candidates, we have been impressed by his campaign’s energy and his ability to quickly learn about some of the complexities of the issues our community faces. As president of the Graduate and Professional Student Government at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nollert was able to persuade the university to raise graduate student stipends by $3,000—an almost twenty percent pay raise—after years of inaction. He did this by marshaling evidence and making arguments designed to persuade university administrators who had been reluctant in years past to make any changes to graduate student stipends.
We believe that Nollert will bring the same savvy to the town council and, crucially, help the town build stronger relationships with UNC. As a member of the planning commission since February, Nollert has been a quick study, willing to admit what he doesn’t know and think outside the box. We’re particularly encouraged by the fact that Nollert is a renter and a young professional, two groups who are often unheard from in council meetings but are vital to our community’s continued prosperity.
Amy Ryan by contrast has been involved in town affairs for twenty years, serving on both the Planning Commission and the Community Design Commission before winning a council seat in 2019. She is the only incumbent running for reelection. While we disagree with Ryan on some issues, we recognize that she is meticulous and is always well prepared for council deliberations. She takes the job seriously and we value her experience as someone deeply invested in our community and aware of the complexity of decisions the council makes.
Ryan’s attention to detail, however, at times borders on pedantic, especially for development projects before council. Chapel Hill has a notoriously capricious and time-consuming development review process that contributes to our housing shortage and inflates the cost of housing that does get built. We were deeply disappointed in Ryan’s vote against the Housing Choices Text Amendment, which she defended as due to the need to tinker more with a proposal that had already been watered down to appease those concerned about the perceived risk of duplexes being built in town. Her no vote gave us pause regarding an endorsement. Ultimately, though, we recognize and agree with her support for the Complete Community framework that, if enacted well, reduces the nitpicking needed for every single new development. We also appreciate her support for the $5 million revolving loan fund from UNC Health, which will allow the town to be more competitive in proactively saving naturally occurring affordable housing. We want Ryan’s attention to detail on the forthcoming land use management ordinance (LUMO) rewrite; having her expertise there will be valuable.
Finally, we support Jon Mitchell, whose work on the Chapel Hill planning commission over the past two and a half years has shown that he understands the need for the town to change its approach to planning. He developed a proposal for modifications to the town’s parking requirements, one of those seemingly minor but critical policy pieces to making our community more affordable, walkable, and sustainable. Like Ryan, Mitchell has fully bought into the Complete Community framework, which should lead to more predictable and better development.
A self-described “policy person,” Mitchell has gone above and beyond the work of planning commission chair, reading widely and voluntarily using the Complete Community framework to analyze planning proposals. We believe he will be a strong voice for good planning decisions as we embark on the first full revision of our zoning codes since 2003.
If elected, Erik Valera would make a terrific town council member. We appreciate his emphasis on representing communities who are not often heard in local decision-making. We are especially interested in one of his policy focus areas that take into consideration manufactured homes, especially along the NS bus corridor. His current position as the Chief Operating Officer of El Centro Hispano demonstrates his acknowledged leadership abilities. If there were a fifth spot on the council, Valera would easily win our vote, and we can understand those who would prefer to vote for him over another candidate we have endorsed.
The five remaining candidates offer a very different agenda for the future of Chapel Hill. Leaving aside Jeffrey Hoagland, a Republican who is running (again) for council on the platform of reducing crime and redevelopment, all of the other candidates have cast their lot with Adam Searing. While candidate slates sometimes form in the midst of a campaign, as candidates learn who shares their values and is poised to win, it is unusual for a slate of candidates to emerge before the filing period even begins. If the candidates below had not chosen to run as a slate, we think that this election would have been very different in tone, which may be a lesson for future races.
The first on the slate is Elizabeth Sharp. Sharp became engaged in local politics after she learned that the town was considering permitting duplexes in her neighborhood. Her primary platform is “good” design, and she gives only lip service to affordable housing, transportation, and greenways. She has no experience in town politics or governance, and it shows. While we can imagine that Sharp might eventually be an effective council member, even if we disagree with her, the fact that she has only recently become interested in town issues gives us considerable pause. Sharp is clearly smart but we worry that her arrogance – she suggested for example that she could have written the Complete Community framework after reading one urban planning book – means she may not listen to (or value) expertise.
In contrast, Renuka Soll has the experience one expects for a council candidate—she has served for many years on the Parks and Recreation Committee, including as chair—but her singular focus on one aspect of town government (parks) and her long standing affiliations with CHALT has shown her to be a candidate who appears to be more concerned about where people play tennis or pickleball than whether they have a safe place to sleep at night. On the campaign trail, Soll has repeatedly cited misinformation about the town’s spending on parks, so much so that the town staff—not elected officials—felt the need to circulate an infographic showing all of the funding sources that are currently supporting our parks.
Breckany Eckhardt also recently became attuned to local governance, with no advisory board or other relevant experience. Like Sharp, she is new to many of the issues facing the town, but unlike Sharp she seems uninterested in increasing her knowledge of the policy environment that shapes town action on housing, transportation, and parks. While Eckhardt is an effective communicator, we have trouble detecting a deeper understanding of policy that is necessary for one to be an effective council member. For example, in her video interview with CHALT, Eckhardt critiqued the Complete Community framework because one of the illustrations used included a train to underscore the importance of transit connections to a complete community. Eckhardt mistakenly read the illustration, which was not prepared specifically for Chapel Hill, as evidence that the entire framework should be discarded because it made supposedly false promises of bringing rail to our community.
Her editorial in Chapelboro was frankly bizarre and full of errors – in it she complains that there’s not enough fun stuff for her to do in Chapel Hill but doesn’t seem to recognize that Durham and Raleigh, which she praises, are more vibrant precisely because they have made room for young professionals like her to live there. We give her credit for having a unique perspective but she’s clearly not ready for prime time. She would benefit from serving on an advisory board, such as the Housing Advisory Board or the Community Design Commission, to learn how local government actually works.
The final member of the slate is David Adams, who has long been one of many CHALT members on the sidelines yelling “stop” while offering few of his own proposals to address how our community might address rapid population growth, climate change, traffic, and other concerns. Adams has been a skeptic of, well, everything new in Chapel Hill for quite some time, and his campaign message seems to be ripped from the pages of CHALT, probably because he helped write them in the first place. We do wonder why Adams, who seemingly is very invested in town development issues, has never been a member of any advisory boards, particularly given that there were many years in which he could have probably taken a seat if he had expressed interest. In any case, he is the essence of CHALT’s Just Say No approach to development, a frequent sharer of completely wrong information, and the least viable candidate on Adam’s slate.
Endorsement statements were researched and written by the Triangle Blog Blog board: Geoff Green, Martin Johnson, Melody Kramer, John Rees, and Stephen Whitlow. Whitlow, Johnson, and Green took the lead on this statement.