Damon Seils | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Damon Seils 

Carrboro Board of Aldermen

Name as it appears on the ballot: Damon Seils
Party affiliation, if any: Democratic Party
Campaign website: damonseils.org
Occupation & employer: research manager, Duke University
Years lived in Carrboro: 16

1. Given the current direction of Carrboro town government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

We’re on the right course. Experienced board members and this election year’s relatively fresh batch of alderpersons—yes, I still like to think of myself as fresh—have shown a capacity for collaborative problem solving and an eagerness to engage community members in decision making. Even when it’s difficult, tiring, occasionally clunky and disagreeable, community members have been able to see themselves in the process and outcomes of our policy making. If we know what’s good for us, we will continue to challenge ourselves to be as inclusive as we can be; maybe it will become habitual.

As for course corrections, we could stand to do more long-term urban planning. Like other areas of the Triangle, Orange County is attracting newcomers and the economic and development pressures that follow them. Responding to those pressures in a way that thoughtfully integrates new development with existing neighborhoods and meets the needs of lower-wealth and middle-class residents will be easier if we are clear, as a community, about what we want the town to look like in the decades to come.

Today, much of the town’s long-term planning happens around transportation issues, largely as a function of the highly systematized processes for obtaining state and federal funding for transportation projects. Our other land use planning efforts are less systematic. As I expressed in my campaign 2 years ago, if we are not now going to develop a comprehensive plan, we can be strategic about pursuing small area plans in a handful of locations that are coming under (re)development pressure, such as the economically and racially diverse Jones Ferry Road corridor. We have adopted and are implementing such a plan for the town’s Northern Study Area, and we have decades’ worth of policy documents to inform downtown planning. As 2020 approaches, it’s time to take a fresh look at our primary planning document, Carrboro Vision 2020. The Planning Board will spark conversations about Vision 2020 in the fall as part of its annual National Community Planning Month forums. These conversations will encourage us to celebrate our successes and identify where needs, concerns, and vision have shifted over the past 20 years.

2. Please identify the three most pressing issues the town faces and how you will address them.

● Financial sustainability of Chapel Hill Transit: My colleagues and I on the Chapel Hill Transit Partners Committee, including fellow alderperson Bethany Chaney, will soon recommend a long-term financial sustainability plan for Chapel Hill Transit. This strategic plan will address shortcomings in equipment and staff resources to keep the system running well over the next 15 years and beyond. We are already beginning to address critical capital needs by participating in a bulk purchase of new buses with our regional partners. The Town of Carrboro’s annual contribution to Chapel Hill Transit—$1.5 million this fiscal year—is the single largest line item in the town’s operating budget. Our financial commitment to this successful partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill and UNC-Chapel Hill reflects our community’s interest in and decades-long policy priority to diversify transportation options. According to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Carrboro has the highest level of transit (and bicycle) commuting in North Carolina. Our investment in Chapel Hill Transit is perhaps the most important component of our efforts to make the community accessible to everyone, including the 1 in 10 households in Carrboro that do not have access to a car and the many residents who choose not to use one. I am especially proud of my advocacy for expanded nighttime and weekend bus service as a member of the Partners Committee. This issue is especially important to me personally as a regular transit user who is joyfully—some might say obsessively—multimodal in his transportation choices.

● Racial equity: Renewed nationwide focus on policing, civil liberties, and racial equity has presented us with an imperative to better engage community members in understanding and participating in the work of local law enforcement. I have taken the lead in working with town staff, residents, and advocacy groups to organize community forums on policing and to craft policies that serve everyone equitably. It has been gratifying to see the town manager, the police chief, and other staff members respond sincerely and substantively to the board’s initiatives on these matters by partnering with community organizations and participating in the difficult conversations that this issue requires. (See more under question #9.) But the conversation must be about more than our police department—which, like in other communities, attracts the most attention because it has the greatest and often most difficult interactions with the public. We all have a part to play in understanding and changing how racial bias shapes our actions in the community. I support having all town staff and as many members of the community as are interested—not just our police officers—participate in racial equity workshops. The board budgeted $5000 in the current fiscal year to begin this project with town employees.

● Infrastructure repairs and upgrades: In my first year in office, I led a response to legislation in the North Carolina General Assembly that threatened local environmental rules, resulting in new protections for Carrboro’s stream buffers and tree canopy. We clearly can’t leave things in the hands of the General Assembly. The town’s volunteer Energy and Climate Action Planning Task Force is nearing completion of a community climate action plan. This collection of recommendations for climate action follows up on previous work to identify actions to reduce energy use related to municipal operations. This year, the board budgeted funds for a comprehensive study of repairs and upgrades to Town Hall. Work will also be required at the Century Center. These facilities account for a large share of the town government’s energy use. Renovations will improve the work environment for town staff and help us achieve our climate action goals. However, municipal operations account for only 7% of Carrboro’s greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving substantial reductions in the remaining 93% of emissions will require coordinated efforts between the town, residents, and community groups. The task force’s recommendations will point the way. The board and town staff are also in the process of prioritizing several stormwater runoff mitigation projects. These projects—some of which will be quite costly—will address flooding in several areas of town and help the town meet its obligations under the Jordan Lake Rules.

3. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the Board of Aldermen? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

In my short time on the board, I have demonstrated collaborative, thoughtful leadership on a variety of issues. Colleagues and community members know me to take a fair, thoughtful approach to both policy and process. They also know me (lovingly, I hope) to be a workaholic. I try to be as open and accessible to the community as I can be. I regularly hold community office hours, and I meet frequently with residents, community groups, and other advocates. I enjoy learning about community members’ experiences and helping people make sense of and navigate complex and unfamiliar town processes.

Over the past 2 years, my many board member assignments have included Carrboro Planning Board liaison, the Chapel Hill Transit Partners Committee, the board of the Durham-­Chapel Hill-­Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, the North-­South Corridor Study Policy Committee, Jones Ferry Road Mural Project liaison, the Joint Orange­-Chatham Community Action Board of Directors, the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness Leadership and Executive Teams, the Lloyd Farm mediation, and the Interagency Working Group on a Financial Assistance Program for OWASA Customers.

Before joining the board, I had several years of experience in town and county government. I was twice elected chair of the Carrboro Planning Board, making recommendations on development and land use policy. I also served on the town’s Greenways Commission. I represented Carrboro as the chair of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, advising the county’s Board of Commissioners on social justice considerations in such wide-ranging issues as fair housing, emergency preparedness and response, civil liberties, employment benefits, and marriage equality.

In other work, I serve on the board of directors of the Carolina Abortion Fund, a volunteer-run, nonprofit organization that provides grants to low-income patients in North Carolina who have chosen to have an abortion but cannot afford the whole cost. As an active volunteer in the Duke University community (where I also hold my regular job), I am a longtime leader of the Duke LGBT Task Force, which works closely with students, employees, alumni/ae, and administrators to promote equality and inclusion for gender and sexual minority communities on campus and in the health system.

4. Please give one specific example of something you think the town has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the town has done during that span.

We have taken too long to begin a comprehensive parking study, a project we have touted to residents and business owners for a while and that we put out for bid this year. Parking animates conversations in Carrboro like few other issues. Slow action on the parking study represents a missed opportunity to have better conversations and clearer policy direction, informed by formal data collection, about what is probably the one issue we hear about most from people visiting downtown.

The category of single best thing has to include the town’s progress in providing new infrastructure in the Historic Rogers Road Neighborhood. Last year, the board made its final appropriation from the town’s fund balance to meet our $900,000 commitment to the Rogers Road community center and sewer improvement projects. Fulfilling this obligation is a result of many years of activism by the Rogers Road community and, at last, a partnership between Orange County and the Towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. In addition, we are now finalizing design and will soon begin construction of a mile-long sidewalk on the west side of Rogers Road, a major new link in the town’s sidewalk and greenway network.

I hope you will indulge me while I mention two other single best things we can be proud of:
● Among my first accomplishments in office was to revive the board’s effort to bring the town’s lowest-paid full-time and permanent part-time employees up to a new living wage of approximately $15 per hour. In the current fiscal year, with the help of the town manager and his staff, we accelerated this process and will complete the salary increases next fiscal year. This effort coincides with the upcoming launch of the Orange County Living Wage Project. I look forward to working with the project’s organizers to exceed their standards for the town’s remaining part-time employees.
● Finally, we now have gender-nonspecific restrooms in the lobby of Town Hall. I was happy to work with Mayor Lavelle, the town manager, and our public works department on this small but important change.

5. How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

Local government, especially in North Carolina municipalities, requires policy solutions that combine government action with the advocacy and programmatic work of community groups and organizations. In my work on the board, openness and accessibility are important principles, and I challenge myself to engage in policy making that encourages broad participation, fosters partnerships with and among community groups, and builds on Carrboro’s reputation as a progressive community that values creativity, diversity, and social justice. I also believe those of us in elected positions have a special responsibility in a diverse, pluralist democracy to amplify the voices of our neighbors who are traditionally marginalized or are in other ways shut out of public processes.

6. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

In addition to my commitment to openness and accessibility to my constituents, I have a special interest in participating in regional and statewide policy making and advocacy. It is important not only for Carrboro to have a voice at the regional policy making table, but also for me to represent the interests of Carrboro residents in both formal and informal ways, whether through representation on regional decision-making bodies like the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, or through participation in the Moral Monday movement, or through supporting candidates around the state who can help change the makeup of the General Assembly. As one of North Carolina’s few openly gay elected officials, I also have a responsibility to support my fellow LGBTQ North Carolinians and to show up for them whenever I can. And I have been, and continue be, committed to working for justice around such issues as a living wage (see question #4) and racial equity (see question #2 and #9).

I have built constructive working relationships with my fellow elected officials throughout Orange County and beyond, and I have taken on roles outside of elected office, such as the Carolina Abortion Fund board of directors, that reach people across jurisdictional boundaries. These experiences are a continuing education in how to be an effective board member and, I hope, are molding me into a stronger advocate for the community and the issues I care most about.

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Carrboro:

7. The ArtsCenter and the Cat’s Cradle are among the most recognized cultural centers in Carrboro. Both face serious questions about their futures. What do you believe the town should do to support these cultural institutions?

In February 2015, the board unanimously turned away a proposal to participate in what was billed as a “partnership” between the town, the ArtsCenter, and Kidzu to operate a new arts facility downtown. In doing so, the board also unanimously recommended to the ArtsCenter a proposed path to a new proposal (with the leadership of fellow alderperson Bethany Chaney) that would require a greater level of feasibility assessment, business planning, and capacity building before the town would consider another proposal. That process is underway. The board will soon consider assisting the ArtsCenter and Kidzu in engaging with a development finance consultant (at no cost to the town) to better define the ability of these organizations to attract private investment. I continue to believe this is the right path to take.

On the Cat's Cradle, we need to do more. Part of doing more is to first better understand the Cradle's needs now and in the long term. Town staff continues to be in contact with the Cradle’s representatives to consider options. The town has also partnered with the Cradle in a handful of successful music events on the Town Commons that attracted thousands from Carrboro and beyond, with more events likely to come. I believe the board would welcome opportunities to participate with the Cradle in a range of collaborations, financial and other assistance, business planning, and other efforts to help maintain the Cradle’s role as what local journalist and musician Kirk Ross rightly described as “not just some venue, but a pole star of the southeast and one of the dwindling number of iconic clubs that have stayed true to its roots and setting.”

8. Development in Carrboro has been something of a mixed bag. Large, mixed-use projects now compete with local storefronts for space and customers. What is your vision for the future of downtown Carrboro and its development?

It is unclear to me that the handful of new additions to our downtown business community are competing directly with existing local businesses. In speaking with many local business owners, I have sensed genuine, if at first hesitant, enthusiasm about the number of people being attracted to downtown by newer businesses. Bringing more people downtown should be good for all businesses, new and old. Nevertheless, I agree that we need to keep an eye on it. I talk with business owners and others who express concern about the effects of new development on what we call “the character of Carrboro.” I believe the town has done a good job so far of managing new development. However, the scale of some development has made it more apparent how hard we will have to work to support existing businesses, especially if we are serious about our professed commitment to a local-first approach to economic development. Downtown should be the social and economic center of Carrboro. My long-range vision for downtown—which is conveniently consistent with longstanding town policy—is a district that evolves incrementally through an emphasis on infill consisting of medium-rise buildings along with a multimodal transportation network that gives priority, in this order, to people on foot or in wheelchairs, people on bicycles, people on buses, and people in cars.

9. A recent study indicated a disparity between how Carrboro police treat minority and non-minority drivers. What are the next steps for Carrboro as far as addressing or correcting racial bias in law enforcement?

As I mentioned in response to question #2, I have taken a leadership role in working with the police chief and other town staff, residents, advocacy groups, and others to address questions about local law enforcement, to organize community forums on policing, and to craft policies that serve everyone equitably.

In late 2013, I encouraged town staff to respond informally to a nationwide ACLU survey on the circumstances under which some law enforcement agencies track cell phone locations. Towns as small as Carrboro normally are not included in such surveys, and our responses to the survey make clear that our police department does not track cell phones in the ways that have raised concerns in other communities (for example, to monitor “communities of interest.”)

In early 2014, I began meeting with the police chief and representatives of the ACLU of North Carolina to shape a policy for the use of dashboard-mounted and body-worn police cameras (a central recommendation of a report since released by the Orange County Bias Free Policing Coalition). This work took on renewed importance after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As protests intensified in Ferguson, I worked with fellow alderperson Michelle Johnson to organize a community vigil in front of Town Hall. Since that time, the camera policy has been drafted and presented to the public for comment.

In January, I attended a conference on policing at the UNC School of Law, “Police Violence in the Wake of Ferguson and Staten Island.” Scholars, lawyers, civil rights activists, and community organizers offered insights into the racialized history of law enforcement in the United States, overviews of racially disproportionate traffic stop data in North Carolina municipalities (including the dramatic numbers from Carrboro), and strategies for reducing racial disparities in policing. These policy strategies included mandatory racial equity training, less emphasis on enforcement of marijuana-related violations, and mandatory written consent for consensual searches of vehicles and homes. Our police department has implemented each of these strategies, including racial equity training of department leadership (and soon all officers), deprioritization of marijuana-related offenses, and, most recently, written consent for searches. More discussion about these developments in Carrboro policing are available on my website at http://wp.me/p2XK0I-nG (12/03/2014) and http://wp.me/p2XK0I-Bz (01/28/2015).

With regard to racial disparities in traffic stops, our police department has conducted preliminary reviews of the data to better understand the numbers, but our small department lacks staff with appropriate data analysis training for a formal study. Professor Frank Baumgartner of UNC-Chapel Hill, who analyzed and presented the data on 17 million traffic stops in North Carolina, attended the town’s June policing forum and made clear that he would welcome opportunities to work with the town on reviewing the data. The department is also now working with a consultant at North Carolina Central University. In May, the Orange County Bias Free Policing Coalition released its report, including 11 recommendations, some of which our police department is already addressing. Addressing the data on racial disparities in traffic stops strikes me as the most important of the outstanding recommendations. We will receive an update on this work in the fall and in our third policing forum (scheduled for October 28).

The town manager and the police chief have made clear to the board they are committed to excellent policing in Carrboro. The opportunity to work closely with the police chief and community members on these issues, in particular, has been a powerful learning experience for me and I believe has made me a better policy maker. An important task for the board, as I noted in response to question #2, is to make clear that we all have a part to play in understanding and changing how racial bias shapes our community. I support having all town staff and as many members of the community as are interested—not just our police officers—participate in racial equity workshops. (I attended my first such training in August and will attend others in the coming months.) The board budgeted $5000 in the current fiscal year to begin this effort for town employees.

10. Downtown traffic congestion is among the most frequently cited complaints in Carrboro. Recent town discussions have invoked proposals of various traffic-calming measures, such as converting some downtown roads into pedestrian-only roads. Where do you stand on this proposal? What are your ideas for improving congestion downtown?

Carrboro has succeeded in reducing traffic downtown during the past 20 years. Even as the town’s population has increased by nearly one-third, average daily traffic has declined or stayed roughly the same on streets throughout central Carrboro. We owe this success to substantial investments in sidewalks, bike lanes, and greenways and a fare-free transit system. In my role as the town’s representative to the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, I have been an effective advocate for continued investment in “alternative” transportation infrastructure projects in Carrboro (and throughout the region), including working with residents to advocate for funding for a sidewalk on South Greensboro Street, which has been programmed for design and construction in the next 2 fiscal years. I will also continue to advocate for direct regional transit service to Carrboro. GoTriangle is studying the idea, and I believe it would be a successful addition to their system.

I support the concept of a “downtown slow zone,” essentially a collection of physical measures, signaling and aesthetic changes, and education and enforcement activities to improve drivers’ compliance with existing speed limits and yielding at crosswalks. The board has directed staff to draft a downtown slow zone policy for further consideration.

I also support continuation of our annual “Carrboro Open Streets” event. One April day for the past 3 years, community members partnered with the town to close Weaver Street to vehicular traffic for several hours to make room for recreational programming in the resulting pedestrian spaces. In addition, this summer, the town experimented with a series of “Carrboro Summer Streets” events, during which the town closed only East Weaver Street for a few hours on one Sunday per month to create a pedestrian plaza with informal programming initiated by community members. During the August event, dozens of people engaged in a variety of activities: Children played soccer, rode bikes and scooters, and generally just ran around being kids. Groups of people sat in chairs, on sidewalks, and in the street with coffee and food from nearby businesses. One business made its storefront area available to a community-supported agriculture enterprise to sign up new members. On one end of the street, a group of capoeiristas came together, both youths and adults, and attracted a large group of spectators and new participants. At each of the 3 events, I invited other Orange County elected officials to join me for community office hours, and we managed to attract several people for good conversation about local issues. These experimental Summer Streets events were a healthy beginning to what I imagined success would look like—in effect, a lively pedestrian plaza in the heart of downtown. They should continue.

11. Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Carrboro. We’ve seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.

In 2012, the board appointed an Affordable Housing Task Force—to my knowledge, the first in Carrboro—to evaluate the town’s existing approaches, articulate policy goals, and develop a set of short- and long-term strategies. The task force, which included board members and the chairs of the Planning Board and Transportation Advisory Board, consulted with affordable housing experts and advocates, met with counterparts in other jurisdictions, and drafted the goals and strategies over several months. The board approved the goals and strategies in 2014 (http://www.townofcarrboro.org/1019/Goals-and-Strategies). It is an impressive document that will guide our affordable housing efforts for years to come. The goals are specific, they are tied to clear strategies for Carrboro’s unusual mix of owner-occupied and rental housing—in which rental units predominate—and they are associated with timelines for completion.

In connection with the new Affordable Housing Goals and Strategies, the board modified the eligibility criteria and allowable uses for the town’s affordable housing special revenue fund to increase the flexibility of the fund and to reflect current needs. With the recent sale of a town-owned property on Main Street, I will support (and I know other board members will support) a significant transfer of the proceeds of that sale into the affordable housing fund.

In support of our Affordable Housing Goals and Strategies, the town has also recently hired an additional assistant to the town manager, who is responsible for leading affordable housing efforts (and other community development initiatives) at the staff level.

Finally, I’ll use this question about affordability to make a another argument for the importance of public transit. Continued investment in transit complements affordable housing efforts by improving transportation options for community members who lack access to a car. The mutual influence of housing costs and transportation costs must inform our choices about affordable housing projects as we implement our new Goals and Strategies program.

12. If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Thank you for your questions.

  • Carrboro Board of Aldermen

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