If you’ve been following the campaigns of Adam Searing and the other CHALT-backed candidates, you may have noticed something odd: a main campaign talking point of theirs is that the town should stop hiring consultants, especially those from out of town, and most especially those from Canada. [full disclosure: I work for a research firm that occasionally consults with local governments on affordable housing policies – we have no history of working for Chapel Hill.]
Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, Searing and his slate contend we can save millions by simply not hiring consultants. There’s a kernel of truth to that. It’s also true that we could save money on our transit system if we stop putting gas in the buses. That’s obviously not a good idea – nor is a blanket policy against hiring consultants.
Let me start by acknowledging that there are some awful consultants out there, such as the McKinseys of the world you hire when you want help firing a bunch of people. But there are also many excellent consultants.
And local governments have good reasons to hire them:
- They have specialized expertise. Towns like Chapel Hill are well-equipped to handle the day-to-day needs of the community, like picking up your recycling or patching potholes. But as good as town staff are, they don’t always have the expertise or capacity needed for irregular or specialized tasks, like rewriting a land use ordinance that may only occur once a decade.
- Because they tend to work in many different places, consultants have insights into how other municipalities work and we can tap their knowledge of how other towns tackle the same challenges we face here.
- They are objective outsiders. In a place like Chapel Hill where there is deep mistrust of elected officials and town staff, it can be helpful to bring in neutral third parties that locals may be more willing to listen to and respect, especially on controversial matters.
Where did the Searing slate’s unusual policy position come from?
More concerning to me than the Searing slate’s stance on consultants is what appears to have motivated it. In January of this year, Searing got testy with Jennifer Keesmaat, a Toronto-based urban planning expert the town hired to help modernize our byzantine development review process. In the meeting, Searing suggested that Keesmaat’s proposal was taking Chapel Hill down the path of central planning like that seen in communist China. Keesmaat, as you can imagine, pushed back. You can watch their exchange here.
Two days later Searing unilaterally called for the town manager to fire Keesmaat. And he’s been publicly insulting her ever since, noting her “arrogance,” and calling her among other things a “dubious out-of-state consultant” and an “out-of-state incompetent planning consultant.” Ten months later, Searing is still reacting to Keesmaat – whatever he doesn’t like about her has now morphed into a blanket opposition to the hiring of consultants.
I can appreciate that Searing has a different vision for Chapel Hill than I. Policy differences are to be expected – we should welcome and debate them – but I find his tactics incredibly petty and unprofessional. Regardless of his opinion of Keesmaat’s proposal, she did the work the Town of Chapel Hill hired her to do. If she did not meet her contractual obligations (there’s no reason to believe she did not), there are professional ways to address that.
If he is elected, Searing will be representing Chapel Hill not only in Council meetings, but in meetings with key partners like UNC and the General Assembly that Searing hopes to convince to build housing on state-owned land. He will regularly engage town staff he needs to help accomplish his agenda. He will represent us to our neighboring elected officials in Carrboro and Durham. We need a leader who, at the bare minimum, can be expected to not publicly trash the reputation of people he disagrees with.
The Searing slate has no feasible plan to replace consultants
In the past year we have hired consultants to advise or assist the town on topics and tasks as diverse as:
- asbestos removal
- transit planning for people with disabilities
- oversight of construction of the Rosemary parking garage
- designing an HVAC system at a fire station
- analysis of a site for affordable housing
- conducting a search for a new town attorney
There are exactly the types of one-off tasks we do not have existing capacity to conduct in house. Who would the Searing slate have conduct these task instead? According to Breckany Eckhardt, one of the Searing slate candidates, “we can solve our own problems by collaborating with UNC students and leaders, advisory boards, and local experts.”
It’s true that we do have incredibly talented people in Chapel Hill. Whether they are experts in asbestos removal and parking garage construction is a whole other question.
Also, does Eckhardt expect to save the town money by using local rather than “out-of-state” experts? Will we simply not pay them? Does she really think UNC students, whom many in Chapel Hill don’t want living in their neighborhoods, are going to rush to volunteer so wealthy taxpayers can save a few bucks?
While we should always be mindful of the cost of hiring consultants, and look for opportunities to build staff capacity, we should also be mindful of the cost of hiring additional staff that would be needed if we follow the Searing slate’s advice and hire no consultants. It is actually more fiscally prudent to hire a consultant for a short-term assignment than to hire permanent staff to handle the same task. It is often more cost effective to hire an expert for a short-term assignment – even an expensive one from far-flung and exotic places like Toronto – than a permanent staff member (though perhaps Searing’s plan is to hire a new staff person, then fire them as soon as they are no longer needed).
Who will help implement Searing’s plans?
One of the great ironies of all this is that Searing’s stance on consultants will harm Searing’s ability to enact his own agenda. His top (only?) policy priority is parks and recreation, including building gravel bike trails and a new skate park. But we do not have a gravel bike trail expert on town staff, nor a skate park designer. We will either need to bring in consultants to implement these, or hire new staff with the requisite experience. (Chapel Hill recently posted for an architecture, engineering, and landscape architect firm to help update its Parks Master plan.)
How did the Searing slate agree to this?
Still another troubling aspect of all of this is that four people running for town council listened to Searing’s policy position on consultants and thought it sounded like a great idea. They are all in lockstep with Searing on this. How does that happen? Even if they think Searing’s beef with Keesmaat is legitimate, how on earth do think they the natural consequence should be to ban ALL consultants from doing business with the town? Running as part of slate is a political strategy, not a commitment to groupthink. I’m not sure which is worse: either they agree with Searing that we don’t need any consultants, or they are just saying that because that’s what Searing told them to say.
In all likelihood, the Searing slate is not being honest about their plans if they take control of the Council. They will of course be perfectly content hiring consultants for their pet causes, while attempting to block or fire consultants for causes they are less interested in. That will mean no more consultants to help us with developing affordable housing or improving our transit service or building a more vibrant and walkable downtown. The future will be bright if your main worries are where to play tennis or preventing duplexes from being built in town. For the rest of us, get ready to the return to the days when Council invested incredible energy in defending the status quo. It doesn’t take a fancy consultant to see who the winners and losers would be if the Searing slate is victorious.