Jeffrey Starkweather | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Jeffrey Starkweather 

Candidate for Chatham County Commissioner

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Jeffrey Starkweather
Date of birth: May 5, 1947
Years lived in Chatham: 36
Campaign web site: www.jeffreystarkweather.org
Occupation/ employer: Self-employed attorney


1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing Chatham County? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

  1. The most important issues facing Chatham have to do with unprecedented growth pressures, the local impacts of global economic and environmental realities, and how our county government responds to these issues. Unplanned residential and commercial growth approved by the previous Bunkey Morgan regime has crowded our schools and roadways, threatened our air, water and farmlands, and made land and housing increasingly unaffordable for working people. In addition, we also face climate change and drought, soaring fuel prices, job losses and recession. Commissioners George Lucier, Carl Thompson and Tom Vanderbeck have begun addressing these issues openly and strategically, but the two other incumbents who are now seeking re-election, have taken a more ad hoc approach, rushing into reckless infrastructure expansion and other dangerous “quick fixes” with little public input.

  2. My top three priorities are:
    1. To continue working with the Economic Development Corporation and citizens countywide to finalize and execute a strategic, community-driven, “place-based” economic development plan that emphasizes green/clean industry, excellent schools, affordable/attractive housing, high-speed internet access, clean entrepreneurship, arts, recreation and sustainable agriculture.
    2. To build and upgrade our local schools to address the overcrowding and to meet 21st century building and teaching standards. This means emphasizing energy-efficient and green design and construction, hiring first-rate teachers and paying them a decent wage, striving for community schools with small class sizes and ensuring academic excellence.
    3. To finalize our comprehensive land-use plans to ensure that commercial and industrial development, and the necessary infrastructure to support it, are located strategically in and around our existing towns and designated economic nodes, and to ensure that residential developments include a diverse range of housing, including attractive affordable housing, and public amenities such as sidewalks, trails and other forms of recreation, and that they are energy-efficient in both their construction and design standards.

These priorities can only be fully realized with a Board of Commissioners that is 100 percent committed and prepared to open and responsive government, that seeks to include citizens in every step of the process.

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Chatham County Commission? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

I have more than 35 years of relevant professional and community experience in Chatham. I am currently secretary of the Economic Development Corporation (co-chair of the subcommittee which is working with citizens to develop a “place-based” economic development strategy), co-chair of the Housing Coalition, a member of the Affordable Housing Tax Force and the Mid-Carolina Workforce Development Board. I have been an attorney for 18 years, specializing in civil rights, employment and disability rights, land-use and elections law, and I was the editor and co-publisher of an award-winning Chatham County newspaper for 11 years which advocated strongly for open government meetings and comprehensive coverage of all communities, helping to make it possible for African Americans to seek and gain public office in Chatham for the first time. My other work experiences have included: Assistant Personnel Manager of a city in California with over 75,000 residents; researcher and legislative lobbyist for a progressive North Carolina education advocacy for children of color, from poor families and with disabilities; constituent services administrator for a United States Senator; civil rights enforcement officer with the former federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and part-time director of the North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance.

I have served with many others on the County Planning Board, the Chatham Arts Council Board and the Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities Board and I was a volunteer community mediator for about 10 years. I was a founder of Chatham Soccer, a youth soccer co-ed soccer league and coached soccer for three years.

I co-founded and chaired the Chatham Coalition, which launched the most successful grassroots political movement in Chatham County and successfully elected a diverse and progressive new majority for the County Commissioners, as well as diverse new members for the County Board of Education. I also co-founded Pittsboro Together, another grassroots political organization, which successfully elected new leaders for Mayor and Town Board.

In all of these roles, I have worked closely with diverse citizens and communities from all over Chatham County, and I have always advocated for including diverse citizen voices in every aspect of government decision making. I have been closely following and engaged in the critical issues facing Chatham for the entire time I have lived here.

My two children were born in Chatham and educated in our public schools and one of them has returned to Chatham with her family, including the two granddaughters who remind me daily why it’s important to work hard for the future of our community.

3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

For my entire adult life and career I have defined myself as a practical progressive populist, and I have worked for more open, transparent and responsive government that seeks to engage and collaborate with diverse citizens in every aspect of decision-making. I have an excellent working relationship with the new progressive majority on our County Board of Commissioners and with Sally Kost who is running for the District 1 seat. My goal is to ensure that the Board continues to be as open as possible in all deliberations, even beyond what the Open Meetings and Public Records Law require, and that there will always be full and open discussions, with public input, before any major decisions are made.

I do not believe that major decisions should be made until they are on the public meeting agenda for more than one meeting. The incumbents that Sally Kost and I are seeking to replace have taken a different, more ad hoc approach, often rushing into unilateral decisions involving reckless expansion of infrastructure, or hasty decisions made without public explanation. I believe that County Commissioners are delegates of the people, not simply trustees, meaning that it is our job to seek out and engage diverse public input, rather than just assuming that we know what’s best for the taxpayers. I believe in transformative governance, not transactional governance, meaning that elected officials should always strive for the big-picture, long-term view of their community, not just rushing for “quick fixes.”

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?

In my current and most recent roles with the Economic Development Corporation and the Chatham Coalition, I have forged important relationships with diverse community and regional leaders, to seek out the most innovative practices and policies to begin addressing the critical issues mentioned in question 1. I also worked deliberately to elect diverse candidates, including African Americans and women, to our major county and local boards, and look forward to working with those leaders and others to build a locally-based green economy, as well as attract clean industry providing jobs with good pay and benefits, support our community college job training and sustainable agriculture programs, provide attractive affordable housing, and excellent schools, so that more local citizens can prosper. We must expand our tax base so that our residential property taxes don’t make housing beyond the reach of working people.

5. What specific steps should the county commissioners take to preserve and protect Chatham’s environment and natural resources In the face of its booming residential growth? State specific initiatives or policies you would introduce and support to accomplish this goal.

We must complete revisions to our comprehensive land-use plan, zoning and subdivision ordinance and highway corridor ordinance during our moratorium period, as well as begin a more deliberate one to two year process of modernizing, and upgrading a fully integrated comprehensive plan and implementing plan use tools to ensure that residential growth does not exceed our infrastructure capacity or degrade our natural resources, that it is energy-efficient in its construction, design and location, and that our mixed-use residential communities encourage health and recreation by being walkable, with public sidewalks, trails and parks. We must be strategic and careful in expanding our water and sewer infrastructure, and placing green/clean industries in locations in and around our towns and designated economic nodes, to avoid economically reckless sprawl developments and further environmental degradation. We should work cooperatively with local municipalities to encourage and support development in our town centers and through infill and building re-use, and we should work with regional leaders to encourage more public transportation options for Chatham residents, such as more local park-and-ride lots connecting with public busses and transit in the Triangle. We should provide broader high-speed internet access to encourage local business development and tele-commuting. Our land-use plans, zoning regulations, infrastructure development, and economic development initiatives should enhance and protect our rural environment while providing more decent jobs for people living in Chatham, better educational and job training opportunities, affordable housing and public transportation options, and access to arts and recreation.

6. Define “economic development.” What does that term mean to you? Given the state of the national economy and local job losses such as the closing of the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant, what specifically can you do as a county leader to strengthen and support Chatham’s economy?

Economic development should enhance all aspects of community life, including decent wages and benefits, excellent education and job training opportunities, practical transportation, affordable housing, arts, entertainment/recreation, and protection/preservation of farms and natural areas. It should provide opportunities for all citizens to prosper and enjoy a good quality of life. I believe Chatham can benefit from a “place-based” economic development strategies that seek to complement and promote its existing strengths (arts, farms, forests and rivers) with new opportunities (green/clean industry, small businesses and downtown shops, entrepreneurship, job training).

Chatham has a tradition of relying too heavily on low-wage industries that eventually move on to places where they can pay even lower wages. First it was textiles, furniture and dog food, most recently it has been chicken processing. The loss of the chicken plant in Siler City will be devastating for that community because the plant was the town’s largest water and sewer customer, and because so many workers and farmers relied on it for their income, and those workers and farmers shop locally for their family needs. The “quick fix” solution would be to find another chicken plant or comparable industry, which I am not opposed to if similar industries that do not pollute can be found; but that won’t solve the area’s long-term economic development needs.

Chatham has also become a bedroom community for the Triangle, but relying primarily on building and selling homes is not a viable, long-term economic development strategy for the community, because residential and retail developments don’t provide enough tax revenues to support the services (schools, water, sewer, police, etc.) that they require. The consequence of massive residential and commercial development is that land and housing prices, and property taxes, will soar, making Chatham unaffordable to working people.

Chatham County needs to provide more decent jobs, job training, clean green industry and business opportunities for people living in Chatham, both to expand our tax base and keep more of our sales tax in Chatham, but also to enhance the quality of life for local residents who would rather work near home than commute. We also need to enact policies that provide incentives for protecting farmland and forests, for the benefit of farmers, as well as other residents who enjoy the open space of rural life. All of this needs to be done strategically in concert with a comprehensive land use plan.

Unlike the incumbents running for re-election, I do not believe that water and sewer are the only or even necessarily the most important infrastructure needed to promote value-added economic development. Quality education is, by far, the most important form of county-supported infrastructure. High speed internet access is also crucial for the 21st century economy. Almost as important as infrastructure needed for a place-based strategy are arts and cultural facilities and programs, active recreation facilities, such as gyms, tennis courts, and ball fields, authentic and revitalized downtowns, and outdoor recreation amenities such as biking and hiking trails, canoeing, sailing, etc.

7. The county enacted a one-year moratorium on new residential developments that expires in June 2008. Should this moratorium be lifted or renewed this summer? If it is lifted, what growth-control measures should be enacted to ensure infrastructure such as schools, roads, etc. can keep pace with the population?

I collaborated with many citizens and groups to provide the county commissioners an initial draft of what became the county’s development moratorium. That ordinance should not be lifted until the County Commissioners update the comprehensive land-use plan, and begin implementing the development regulation tools it provides, including strategies for diverse affordable housing, farm preservation, countywide land-use regulations, and revising the zoning and subdivision ordinance to provide earlier citizen input in a more deliberative review process and “teeth” to give the commissioners more ability to revise or reject development proposals based on environmental, traffic and fiscal impacts. Thus, I would support extending the moratorium to give us sufficient time to complete those tasks, and possibly to provide adequate facilities/infrastructure control mechanisms.. Given the significant downturn in the real estate economy, we can afford to take the time to develop the tools to adequately control growth when we are now not facing as much residential growth pressure as before. This doesn’t mean that strategic economic development should stop. In the meantime, Chatham should encourage economic development and water/sewer development in its existing towns to strengthen the local economy without encouraging sprawl and environmental degradation. The county’s development moratorium does not affect the municipalities and the County Commissioners should work cooperatively with local municipal leaders, and regional partners, to provide adequate water and sewer development to our towns and designated economic nodes.

8. Give your assessment of the major corridors task force proposal.

I have been working with county officials and other community leaders to promote the major corridors task force and I believe it is an excellent proposal that will enhance economic development and protect our rural environment and natural resources by concentrating development in designated areas and in our towns. It does not take away anyone’s right to sell or develop their property, but rather enhances the value of property by designating it for its most effective use.

I have some concerns about the commercial node designated between Siler City and Bear Creek and would prefer to see growth focused within those two municipalities rather than between them, to prevent sprawl and environmental degradation. I would also like to see industrial sites linked to public transportation/ transit access.

As we seek additional zoning and land use controls across the county we will need to launch a public outreach campaign to involve citizens more in the plan’s development and implementation and to explain the advantages of having development concentrated in towns and designated areas.

9. With the failure of the land transfer tax last fall and the county’s schools impact fee now at its maximum, what are your suggestions for finding new revenue for the county to keep up with its expenses, particularly school additions and renovations?

The best way to maintain property taxes at a reasonable level will be to expand our tax base with clean/green industries that will provide significantly more tax revenues than they demand in services. Our county economy is now imbalanced, relying too heavily on residential development that costs more in services than it provides in tax revenues. The county also needs to be more assertive in demanding more public amenities from the developments it does approve, including public parks, recreation, sidewalks, trails and school sites. We must ensure that developments do not exceed our infrastructure capacity and that developments provide sufficient revenues for the services that they will demand.

10. Please state your general philosophy on what role citizens should play in government decision-making. In general, do you think Chatham residents have enough opportunities to make their voices heard? If so, state some examples. If not, what are your ideas for improving and incorporating citizen input in county government decisions?

In my answer to number 3, I emphasized open, responsive county governance that seeks to include diverse citizen input at every step of the decision-making process, and that officials are delegates of the people, not simply their trustees. Our current Board majority has made tremendous strides in promoting more open deliberations and extensive citizen input, but we still have a planning review process that does not give citizens enough time to gather substantive information about proposed developments so that they may have timely and informed input. The public hearing process needs further reform to provide more adequate public information and citizen input and involvement. Our county government has been providing much more information via its website and email notices, but it can still do more.

Our professional planning staff needs to be expanded to make sure hard working volunteers on our important citizen advisory boards and task forces have the professional and technical staff support they need. I would also promote making a demonstrated commitment to open government and citizen input one of the principal qualifications for all county jobs, as well as an important job performance evaluation criteria. Also, I would continue and, enhance training for all county employees in open government/ citizen participation, public records and open meetings laws. Additionally, I would like to develop a citizen board training program where ethics and open-minded problem solving are emphasized

I strongly support the proposal put forward by Commissioner Tom Vanderbeck to have citizen advisory councils in every community so that they regularly gather input from and provide information to each geographic area of the county.

11. If you are a challenger, how would you rate the job the incumbents are doing? Be specific in criticisms and compliments. If you are an incumbent, how would you rate the job you and your colleagues are doing? Be specific about accomplishments or challenges.

The three incumbents, George Lucier, Carl Thompson, and Tom Vanderbeck elected in 2006 with the campaign support of the Chatham Coalition, which I chaired during that election, are doing an excellent job in implementing the citizen’s agenda issued by the Coalition upon which they ran. Unfortunately, the two incumbents who are seeking re-election, one of whom I am opposing, have failed to follow that citizen’s agenda and have opposed Lucier, Thompson and Vanderbeck on a number of their progressive environmental and economic initiatives.

While I was not involved in rating the incumbents for the Chatham Coalition’s Accountability Report Card released in January, I have read it and certainly agree with its findings. See www.chathamcoalition.org

I would say that their most significant failings as elected officials have been in the following three general areas:

  1. They have operated in a top-down, unilateral, and closed manner, as opposed to the bottom up, collaborative, and open approach that they said they would operate under when elected. They seem to see themselves as “trustees,” who do not need citizen input in their decision-making because they assume they already know what is in the best interests of the county or what voters want. For example, they rushed into a costly deal to buy water from Harnett County without holding a public hearing, or seeking any input from their supporters, and they refused to delay a decision on it for a month until the new commissioners-elect could take office.. Another example was when my opponent, Mike Cross, met with Briar’s Chapel developers behind closed doors and then decided to approve the development, after promising the voters he would not approve it.

  2. The two incumbents running for re-election make decisions on an ad hoc, transactional basis without looking at the long-term and big picture aspects of the problem. They have very little understanding of the need for long-range planning on most issues. For example, they promoted an industrial park outside Siler City without seeking a marketing and labor needs’ study to determine what, if any, industries would like to locate there. Also, they failed to do an environmental assessment of the property. As a result, Chatham has spent $10 million on a park whose only tenants are non-property-tax paying public institutions. Now the Economic Development Corporation is struggling to determine how to market this park when the trend is away from industrial parks located in rural areas. Another example is when both incumbents opposed a proposal to engage UNC-Chapel Hill experts and citizens in the development of an innovative economic development strategy for the county.

  3. The two incumbents seeking re-election are not collaborative problem solvers. From the moment the three new commissioners won their Democratic primaries in May 2006, the two incumbents refused to work collaboratively with the new board members. They negotiated a costly, one-sided contract that gave the county manager more authority than the commissioners who oversee him.. The two incumbents even walked out of a public board meeting once in anger when they did not get their way in a planning matter.

My approach is to work as openly, collaboratively and inclusive of public input as possible, to remember that I serve the public, not myself or my personal friends or neighbors. I would strive to listen and incorporate diverse interests and to fully explain my positions and votes in public. I would like to see the board decide to make its major decisions only at evening meetings so more people could attend, and to agree not to make major decisions at the very first meeting where the subject is discussed. Major decisions should be discussed thoroughly and then scheduled for a vote at a future meeting.

Finally, I expect and want the voters to hold me accountable for my positions and actions.

12. Identify a principled stand you would be willing to take even though it cost you popularity points with constituents.

I think it’s time for Chatham to expand the number of seats on the Board of Commissioners to include more voices and to ensure additional representation for western Chatham. This is a complicated matter. My current thinking on this is to consider increasing the Board from five to seven members and to have the seats be a combination of at-large and district representation to ensure both geographic and racial/ethnic diversity. Whatever we do, it should be developed through an extensive, deliberative process significant input from all areas of the county.

  • Candidate for Chatham County Commissioner

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