Jason Baker | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Jason Baker 

Chapel Hill - Mayor and Town Council

Name as it appears on the ballot: Jason Baker

Full legal name, if different: Jason Elisha Hall Baker

Date of birth: July 18, 1984

Home address: 913B Shady Lawn Drive Extension, Chapel Hill NC 27514

Mailing address, if different from home: PO Box 14, Chapel Hill NC 27514

Campaign website: http://www.jasonbaker.us

Occupation & employer: I am a graduate student at NCSU. Until heading to grad school recently, I worked as a marketing professional specializing in community events, outreach, and membership at Weaver Street Market. I still work there on a part time basis.

Email: jason@jasonbaker.us


1. Why are you running for office and what are your top priorities, if elected? Please include information on past public service, posts held, volunteer work completed and other examples of your leadership.

When I ran and lost as an undergraduate student in 2005, the Independent issued me a challenge. "We hope he will stay involved in local government in order to gain the experience that would make him a stronger candidate in the future." (Independent Weekly, October 26, 2005) I believe that my record of service in the six years since serves to demonstrate my commitment to our local community and my readiness to take the next step and join the Chapel Hill Town Council. Below is a sample of that volunteer and public service:

Political Committee, Orange-Chatham Sierra Club (2006-2010, Chair 2008)
Executive Committee, Orange-Chatham Sierra Club (2010-Present)
Chapel Hill Transportation Board (2006-2007)
UNC Advisory Committee on Transportation (2006-2007)
Northside Democratic Precinct Chair (2007-2009)
Orange County Alternative Revenue Options Education Advisory Committee (2008)
Chapel Hill Planning Board (2008-Present)
Third Vice Chair, Orange County Democratic Party (2009-2011)
Carrboro BALLE Steering Committee (2009-2010)
Chair, Hillsborough Downtown Merchants Group (2010-2011)
Chapel Hill Comprehensive Plan Initiating Committee (2011)

My priorities when elected will be consistent with the work I have done as a citizen activist over the past several years: to work for a comprehensively sustainable community that champions environmental preservation, promotes diversity, increases participation from groups within our community who have been historically marginalized, and builds our local living economy to keep jobs in our community and increase our ability to become economically self-sufficient.

2. If you are not currently serving on the Town Council, what will you bring to the body that it now lacks? If you are an incumbent, what perspective have you brought that the town still needs?

I am the only challenger in this race with a record of leadership experience with both local environmental organizations and local economic development organizations. I think that perspective is one that would be of great value to our Town Council as we seek to further both of these goals while reducing the conflict between them. I understand the pressures of keeping small, locally owned businesses successful in a difficult economy, but am also thoroughly committed to environmental preservation, and think that I can find common ground between those differing goals.

Though I am not an incumbent, as a long term advisory board member and a frequent observer of town council meetings, I will be ready to hit the ground running when elected. I think it is important to understand the decisions and circumstances that led our community to be built the way it is today, so that we can learn from both our successes and failures. As an informal student of local history, I think there is much to learn from both our own past, as well as from what has worked for other communities whose successes we might seek to emulate.

And though it is not why I am running, I think the viewpoint I bring from my position in life would be a valuable one for the council to have: that of a student, a young person, a renter, and a person of modest means. Chapel Hill is a town of great privilege in which it is easy to overlook many of those who are not as fortunate. As a young professional who is trying to find a careful balance between work, school, and public service, I think my perspective would be useful. Though the majority of Chapel Hill residents are not homeowners, very few non-homeowners participate in the public planning process in Chapel Hill. Students, youth, low income groups, minorities, and many other groups who are currently not at the table need more representation at the table. I don't claim to be the representative of any particular community, but I think it is important to have council members who understand the barriers to participation that hold many back from joining our public processes so that we can work proactively to include them.

3. In the last four years, what do you feel are the three best accomplishments of Chapel Hill Town Government, and why? Conversely, what are three things you would have done differently?

Without a doubt the Carolina North Development Agreement has been the number one accomplishment of our local government in the past four years. Though by no means a perfect document, the process we went through to arrive at the end result brought us from a situation where town-gown relations were tumultuous at best to a new era in which cooperation and mutual respect were much more commonplace. I believe Chancellor Moeser and Mayor Foy did an excellent job in creating a working relationship between the town and university, and the inclusion of the hard work of many citizen activists ultimately made a better document that I think will lead Carolina North to be a much better development than many of us had anticipated during the early discussions.

I am also proud of Chapel Hill's implementation of the Inclusionary Zoning ordinance. While our working definition of affordable housing as a town requires expansion to serve a broader spectrum of residents, I think our efforts to include a minimum level of affordable housing in every new project is a huge step in the right direction. Because the process for developing this ordinance was extensive, thoughtful, and inclusive of a large number of diverse viewpoints, we were able to reach a consensus that created a requirement that was not overly onerous to developers while pushing us forward in our goal of increasing the affordable housing supply.

Similarly, our enactment of the revised tree ordinance was a good example of the kind of collaborative effort we can host as a community in order to create an ordinance that moves us in the right direction without being unfairly burdensome to any individual affected by it. As a planning board member, I was proud to be a part of this revision process. There is no question that Chapel Hill residents value our trees as an important part of the quality of life here, and now we have rules in place to permanently preserve that important part of the character to our town. It came as no surprise, but certainly increased my pride in our efforts, when the N.C. Forest Service recognized our efforts by awarding Chapel Hill the "Outstanding Project Merit Award" for revising our tree protection standards.

Of course, neither the current council nor its detractors are given crystal balls, and as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

While I am glad we've undertaken the comprehensive plan rewrite process, it is long overdue. We should have started this process years ago. As a planning board member, there are many times when I have been asked to make a determination as to whether a project is in keeping with the values embodied in that document, while knowing that the current comprehensive plan is silent on many of the concerns residents raise. I am hopeful about the process moving forward, but continue to be concerned about projects coming down the pipeline in the meantime.

We should have started earlier and been more aggressive with our work toward open and proactive communications as a town. The council has only recently made their email archive easily accessible to the public, and though I am excited about the planning department's new development website, it is still not operational. There are many documents which the public needs access to which simply cannot be found easily on the town's website. But of greater concern, there are many people in town we simply are not communicating with. Traditional media does not reach a large portion, perhaps even a majority, of the town's residents. We need to be more aggressive in our efforts to proactively seek input and share information, whether it's through social media, through utilizing posters and signage, or by sending ourselves and staff into apartment complexes, dorms, or other areas that aren't a part of traditional neighborhoods to interact with residents on their terms.

One final thing I think the town could have done differently in recent years is inspections and enforcement work, particularly in the Northside and Pine Knolls communities where the concerns of many long-term residents have only been marginally addressed by the Neighborhood Conservation Districts that are supposed to be managing change in a more sensitive way. The issue is not limited to these two NCDs, certainly, but there are obvious abuses there that simply have not been dealt with promptly, such as unauthorized construction, unkempt and deteriorating properties and landscapes, egregious parking violations, noise ordinance issues, and overcapacity occupancy. The town has a responsibility to everyone who lives in Northside and Pine Knolls to use the current development moratorium to try and get it right this time. If the town had done more to begin with, the current moratorium may not have been necessary.

4. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

Building a just community is an embedded part of every decision the council makes, and social justice deserves to be treated as an equal leg on the three legged stool of sustainability. I am committed to standing up for the rights of minorities and those whose voices are not often heard. Whether this manifests itself in our affordable housing policy, in finding justice for the environmental racism issues surrounding the Rogers Road community, in ensuring our transit and EZ Rider services are prioritized to serve those who are most reliant upon them, or in helping to attract and grow businesses in our community who will create well-paying jobs across the full spectrum of skill levels, the rights of those least able to speak up for themselves should be our top concern.

In contrast to what I have heard from some detractors, I think the town council has a role in standing up for issues of state and national consequence. For many, the town council is the only level of government that is accessible to them. The council is the only body who you are guaranteed to be able to address at every business meeting and public hearing. The council is the first line of defense against injustice, and if elected I would take that role seriously. I was one of two citizens to speak in support of the council's resolution opposing placing the marriage amendment on the ballot next May, not just because I felt that it was morally important, but because I felt it was important that my council stand up for the civil rights of their constituents.

5. How do you define yourself politically (ie) conservative, moderate, liberal, third party, hybrid etc) and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

It seems commonplace for candidates to say that they moved to Chapel Hill because of its high quality of life. While the quality of life here is indeed high, that's not why I live here. I chose to stay in Chapel Hill after graduation because it is a place with strong progressive values. I hope to continue Chapel Hill's proud tradition of progressive values when elected to the council. I'm not afraid of the term liberal, but I prefer the word progressive, because it embodies the importance of not just having liberal values, but doing something about them.

I believe it is possible to be committed to environmental and neighborhood protection while still allowing for responsible growth and development. My approach to the development review process is to identify potential negatives and seek solutions to reduce and mitigate harm. As a community, change and growth are inevitable - our success or failure can only be measured by how we plan for that change, how we listen to the concerns our community, and how we take those concerns and address them with real solutions.

I have demonstrated my commitment to a progressive political philosophy through the organizations above that I have served for the past several years, as well as in my campaign platform. Among the things I hope to be an advocate for are: neighborhood and environmental protection, working to diversify our affordable housing options, increasing our commercial tax base and growing our local economy, protecting our historic character, increasing local and regional transit service, making our community more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, cultivating a participative and open planning process, and remaining committed to keeping Chapel Hill a diverse, welcoming, and open community.

6. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

I believe that the Chapel Hill electorate is both reasonable and intelligent, and will forgive an elected official for taking a position in opposition to their own so long that it is well-considered. Principled stands are worth taking.

One immediate example of a stand I am willing to take comes to mind. So long as they meet the rigorous standards we expect developers to adhere to, I would be willing to support a potentially large and dense development in our downtown or along our transit corridors, even when neighbors of their project may have their doubts. I believe firmly that climate change will be the defining issue of my generation, and how we behave in response to the coming crisis will define our ability to survive into the future. Responding appropriately requires a commitment to the principles of smart growth, to site structures appropriately to create a bicycle and pedestrian friendly community where transit is a viable option and reduces our need for single occupancy vehicles as a means of transportation.

As an advisory board member, I have a voting record since 2008 on the Planning Board and in 2006-2007 as a member of the Transportation Board that reflects this stance.

7. Do you support the cent sales tax referendum? Would you support future ballot initiatives such as the transit tax? What will you do to educate and involve the public not only in those decisions but in town affairs in general?

I support the quarter cent sales tax referendum and look forward to the county commissioners placing the transit tax on the ballot soon, which I plan to enthusiastically support as well. It's hard to love a sales tax, or any tax that's not structured progressively, but I believe that capital improvements to our aging schools and infrastructure to our county's economic development districts are worth supporting, and frankly, given the current budget situation this is our best hope to be able to find the funds for these priorities.

I believe funding our regional transit system to be an even greater priority. I hope our neighbors in Durham County are able to pass their initiative this fall to lead us to similar victories in Wake and Orange Counties in the near future. With a functioning light rail system more than a decade out under the best of scenarios, the time to act is now. While my capacity as a public official to advocate for a ballot initiative is limited, I plan to advocate strongly as a private citizen for its passage. I have been closely following the work of the Durham-Orange Friends of Transit and was among the first several individuals to sign my name to their campaign.

Public participation is important, not just with these issues but throughout our town. I am pleased that the town has finally hired a community participation coordinator to help head up these efforts, but there is still more we can do in the interest of civic participation and open government. The town has continued to expand their efforts to share information through their website and social media in recent years. The next step is for them to become participative, and use new media in the way it was intended - as a two way communication tool to facilitate conversation, rather than just broadcast information.

8. This fiscal year saw the town make cut some bus routes and reduce their frequency, the town's July 4th celebration and Project Turnaroud, among other cost saving measures? Do you agree with the choices? If not, how would you have found the funds or what different cuts would you have made?

The coming years are certainly going to be a difficult financial period for the town. While it's not a popular position to take, I think its important to be honest and say that I am not sure that the town will be able to hold the line on tax increases in the coming fiscal cycle as they have been able to do in recent years. There have been some cuts that I have found to be fiscally prudent, such as the July 4th fireworks, and others that I would not have made, such as the cuts to transit service. The transit service cuts affected me personally, as the distance from my home to the nearest bus stop doubled to over a mile. I do not believe we can retain our commitment to building a sustainable transit-oriented community if we fail to provide transit service that is reasonably consistent from year to year. We can't expect, for example, a family to transition from being a two-car household to a one-car household if they can not trust us that their service won't disappear shortly thereafter.

The defining question for me is how these issues play into our vision for long term sustainability - fiscally, socially, and environmentally. Sometimes the prudent thing to do is to make a smart investment now that will pay dividends in the future. The library expansion is a good example. Our library is over capacity, and every year we would have otherwise waited to act would have been one more year of the eventual cost of construction increasing, while simultaneously doing nothing to meet our town's needs.

9. The town plans to write a new comprehensive plan this year to guide the next 20 years of development, what process should be used and what driving principles and strategies should the end result include?

As a member of the Initiating Committee appointed by the town to lay the foundation work for the new comprehensive plan, my top priority for developing the process has been ensuring inclusiveness. Though perhaps lofty, I am committed to the goal of including ten thousand residents in the 2020 visioning process. To achieve this goal, we're going to have to think outside of our the normal parameters we use for community participation in the planning process. We need to rotate meetings throughout town at a variety of locations, times of day and days of the week to ensure that there is a time and a place that will work for everyone, and provide transportation and childcare to the extent possible so that no one is left out. We need to structure the meetings so that they invoke conversations about solutions rather than just an airing of grievances. We also need to meet our local communities on their terms, in their existing social structures, whether in churches, civic organizations, or the homes of prominent community members, to educate them about the process and make sure that they are included.

While ensuring sustainable transportation and land use patterns are my top priorities for the new comprehensive plan, I am hopeful that this will be a document that goes above and beyond what our last comprehensive plan accomplished. I want to see a document that also focuses on our economic development strategy, of how we will encourage the growth and retention of locally owned companies, particularly those in the green business and technology sectors that we can feel proud to house here. I would also love to see a greater focus on how we are going to work to collaborate with our partners to accomplish this plan throughout its lifespan, and how the university, the county, and our neighbors in Durham and Chatham counties interact and play a part in our goals.

10. What's your view of the recent and in-progress additions to downtown, Greenbridge and 140 West and what's your hope for UNC's University Square development plans? What else needs to be done to preserve and further a unique and thriving downtown?

In the face of what can often be vocal criticism of the town's development strategy, I think it is important that we remain committed to the principles of smart growth while learning from the successes and failures. I'll be the first to say that not everything went right with Greenbridge and 140 West. I think the clearest gap was in the communication between the town, the developers, and the larger community. As we look forward to University Square's redevelopment, I think frequent and deliberate efforts to explain where we are in the development review process and what is coming next is important. Unfortunately, much of what could have been useful feedback about Greenbridge did not come until it was too late to incorporate it into the project.

Construction mitigation is another area where we need to tread carefully as University Square and other similar project are considered, particularly in thinking holistically and staging major developments like these so that the impacts on traffic, on parking, and disruption from noise, dust, and debris do not come all at once. While I am confident in our downtown economy, I worry that it is fragile and feel we need to make it clear that our downtown is accessible and open for business at all times.

Gentrification is an issue in Chapel Hill, and the pressure seems to be the greatest at the edge of our downtown. While our inclusionary zoning ordinance will help to alleviate some pressures from the ever-increasing cost of living here, it does not solve every issue. We need to expand our thinking about affordable housing to include our approach to rental properties, and I think the town needs to explore ways that it can further regulate the rental housing market within the confines the state law allows us, and seek enabling legislation to further those abilities. We also need to broaden our thinking about transitional housing, smaller-than-traditional living spaces, and other solutions that may be part of the big picture.

I believe that adding more residents and commercial space to downtown Chapel Hill is critical to ensuring its long-term vibrancy, but that we must also balance those efforts with the needs to protect the surrounding neighborhoods. As I mentioned above, the Northside community requires and deserves additional help from the town to ensure that it can continue to be both affordable and livable into the future, and changes to the way the NCD may be required in order to ensure this. We must be similarly vigilant, though with a different set of issues, with the Cameron-McCauley Historic District on the south side of downtown.

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