Matt Hughes | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Matt Hughes 

Orange County Commissioner

Name as it appears on the ballot: Matt Hughes
Campaign Website: www.votematthughes.com
Phone number: 919-928-4480
Email: matt@votematthughes.com
Years lived in Orange County: 25 years
click to enlarge matt-hughes-photo-350x350.jpg

1. What are the three most important issues facing Orange County? If elected, how would you address those issues? Please be specific.

Education: Orange County has some of the best schools in the state, if not the nation, and we need to work to keep our schools fully funded considering what we see coming out of Raleigh every budget cycle. I believe we need to emphasize early childhood education (including universal pre-k for low-income families), expand the Orange County campus of Durham Tech to retrain our workforce, and raise our teacher pay to the national average. County Commissioners should continue our close collaboration with our Boards of Education in addressing issues in our schools and the broader community, especially as it relates to retaining our high quality teachers, closing the achievement gap, and protecting public education. Moving forward I will advocate for school districts to coordinate purchases of mutually useful goods and services, and establish a single maintenance garage for school buses funded by the bond. I am committed to public education and oppose increases in funding private schools.

Economic Development: With all forms of economic development, we must stay true to our commitment to protect our watersheds and ecosystems and business should be consistent with Orange County’s character. We support local businesses and recruitment into our economic development districts when we improve our county’s infrastructure, especially public transportation and universal broadband internet access. It is imperative that the commissioners work with the Town of Chapel Hill and UNC Chapel Hill to continue their close collaboration nurturing small businesses through LaUNCh, and by creating affordable space to retain these businesses in Orange. This will be a priority of mine moving forward. I will also push for expanding our small business loan and grant programs so that small businesses, new and existing, are support and know we are their partner in achieving success.

Affordability: We must focus on making housing more affordable by ensuring decent and livable wages and keeping property taxes as low as possible. We must ensure that residents can age in place with the services they need, communities that are physically accessible, and housing that remains affordable on fixed incomes. I will also focus on workforce housing for teachers, nurses, first responders, and UNC employees. A great opportunity moving forward is leveraging county-owned land, such as the Greene Tract (located near Rogers Road), for affordable housing units and I support continuing investment in projects like Eno Haven Senior Apartments (located in Hillsborough near the SportsPlex). Most of all, we must recruit and support businesses that provide a living wage.

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

For the past five years the Orange County Democratic Party has achieved unprecedented success under my chairmanship. Since November 2011, I have led a party divided by gender, ethnicity, geography, and political ideology to the point where, in 2014, The New York Times recognized Orange County as outperforming traditional Democratic results and MSNBC characterized our turnout as “monster turnout” on election night. We accomplished this by effectively organizing our constituency groups and grassroots activists, and by working closely with our elected officials. I have increased confidence among our rank and file members, achieved record fundraising, upped Democratic voting performance in our general elections, and expanded early voting hours and early voting locations. Moreover, under my leadership the Orange County Democratic Party led the state party by not only endorsing a “No” vote against Amendment 1, but by joining the Coalition to Protect NC Families. As a county, we beat the amendment nearly 80% to 20%. As an LGBT person, it was important to me that the Party be an unequivocal advocate for the LGBT community and represent the values of equality and fairness.

I am also a leader within the state Democratic Party’s executive committee, where I am recognized as someone whose judgment, problem solving skills, and work ethic are valued in forging consensus and building coalitions. By bringing all of our groups together I have helped rebuild a Party that has been successful by all accounts while keeping true to our progressive values as an organization. I not only stand for progressive values, but work tirelessly to elect more progressives to office and reshape our politics.

I have served on the Raising Achievement and Closing the Gap Oversight Committee for Orange County Schools where I worked with community members, board members, and district staff to craft solutions to tackle the achievement gap and hold policymakers accountable for outcomes. As a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, I worked to bridge the gaps that exist in our community so that our county’s government and its residents live in a socially just community, including in the Rogers-Eubanks area. In addition to serving on the Human Relations Commission, I am also a member of the quasi-judicial Orange County Board of Adjustment. In this capacity I have to evaluate special use permits in accordance with the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, thereby applying county policy to real-world situations and learning the improvements to the UDO that could be made for better application. I joined the Advisory Council of KidsCope, a program that serves not only early childhood education, but also early intervention efforts, because I believe in the promise of early childhood education and intervention can prepare someone for a successful life. I benefitted from such efforts, like Head Start, to overcome a significant speech impediment as a child due to public investment in these programs.

In a previous professional role, I worked for Action for Children NC (previously the NC Institute for Child Advocacy) as their Outreach Coordinator. In this capacity, I was responsible for mobilizing our coalition partners and grassroots activists on specific legislative issues. In the 2013 session we were laser focused on raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction for misdemeanors from 16 to 18. Part of this effort was to prevent children from being prosecuted as adults and instead be rehabilitated through juvenile courts with community support structures. Without a doubt this legislation would disrupt the school to prison pipeline. I am proud of my work in helping marshal this legislation out of multiple committees and eventual passage by the NC House with bi-partisan support.

In all of my capacities I have demonstrated an ability and willingness to reach out to community partners to find solutions to the problems we encounter. My service in these capacities has shown me that while we are a progressive community, we have a lot of work to do in being a more inclusive community. The Achievement Gap persists, and though we’re making progress and have the Family Success Alliance working diligently on related issues, we need to continually unite the community to tackle this problem together. KidsCope is a program that is implementing this approach, by overriding individual challenges to provide children with the resources and services that they need to be successful.

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

I would define myself as a progressive and unapologetic Democrat. I am a progressive Democrat because of what the Democratic Party has always been committed to: leveling the playing field and creating opportunity for all. That is why I have always been so strongly committed to public education and economic development that benefits everyone. Moreover, I believe we need an inclusive community that allows for people of all socio-economic situations to be able to afford to call Orange County home.

The fact is that we cannot achieve any of the progressive goals I mentioned unless Democrats hold elective office at every level of North Carolina government. When I led the Orange County Democratic Party to the highest voter turnouts ever; when we have greatest number of Democratic volunteers ever; when all our precincts are organized to get out the vote; when diverse and highly opinionated county Democrats feel safe in a dialog with each other, I can proudly say I have accomplished a great deal towards achieving our aims.

Similarly, other venues highlight my commitments to these Democratic ideals. I served on the Raising Achievement and Closing the Gap Oversight Committee as well as the KidsCope Advisory Council because I believe public education should serve the needs of all children. I believe that public education is the surest way children can be put on the path forward for a better life and I am proud of the work that we’ve done to serve children who historically underperform while pushing for continued improvements. Furthermore, I have served on the Orange County Human Relations Commission where we have worked with under-represented communities that have not always gotten a fair shake. We have partnered with community groups in monitoring the Roger-Eubanks water and sewer issues, providing language services to those whose first language is not English, and evaluating the accessibility of County buildings for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

My platform represents my political ideology by remaining strongly committed to public education and funding it according to needs, creating jobs for those with degrees and those in trades, and making Orange County a more affordable place with well-paying jobs and affordable housing (including workforce housing).

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

For nearly five years, I have served on the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which promotes equal treatment of all individuals, no exceptions, and creating a community that is inclusive, peaceful, and safe.

a. I have worked with county staff on issues relating to fair housing and civil rights enforcement.
b. Recently, the HRC commissioned a report on ADA compliance analyzing how county-owned facilities impeded interaction between local government and those with disabilities. This report opened my eyes to an issue that I had not considered before. Therefore, I plan to ensure that the County works to retrofit existing facilities to make them ADA-compliant for residents and employees and have more thought given to the design of new county buildings related to people with disabilities or limited mobility.
c. One of the most meaningful issues that I have worked on within the Commission was addressing the concerns that people with criminal records face in finding housing and employment. We did extensive research about this issue and have made steps forward such as “banning the box.” However, it is clear that we still have very restrictive policies in place that impede finding housing and employment and I will work with municipalities and the county to fix this issue.
d. We have worked with the Rogers-Eubanks and Burmese/Karen communities to investigate what services the HRC and the County could provide to enrich their quality of life.

As a county commissioner, I will continue to work hard to make Orange County a more socially-just community. I will advocate the type of social change the HRC has pursued, based on my service with the HRC. The HRC worked hard in creating the Social Justice Goal and the Impact Review Tool that is now attached to agenda items that County Commissioners receive when making decisions. I will ensure that we adhere to our unanimously adopted Social Justice Goals when we make decisions that affect our community, especially those decisions that affect underrepresented or historically excluded communities.

Personally, I understand the struggles of our community. From an early age, I experienced the things I know others in Orange County face every single day. I attended an elementary school that had more and more students who qualified for the free and reduced lunch program and I was one of them. My family experienced sub-standard Section 8 housing. I learned of the shame of poverty when I asked my mom about food stamps and Medicaid and why we had it. For me poverty is not about statistics, but real people and a lack of opportunity. We need someone who comes from a generation of less opportunity because the economy has shifted beneath our feet. The Millennial Generation has a lot to offer Orange County, but as a bi-racial member of this generation, I recognize the fact we need more opportunities for affordable housing and well-paying jobs. Even as a college graduate with a good paying job, I still struggle with these issues. If I struggle, I know there are those with few opportunities and fewer options that struggle even more. I want to bring those experiences with me to the Board of County Commissioners and present a different perspective for people whose voices are not always at the table.

5. What is your vision for development in Orange County? Do your development ideas include preserving the rural buffer? Do you think it was worthwhile to rezone hundreds of acres in economic development districts to attract businesses?

My ideal vision for economic development is one that acknowledges how far we have come in economic development, and just how much further we have to go in letting folks know that Orange County is open for business. The establishment of the three economic development districts (EDD) along I-40 and I-85 was a great first step nearly 25 years ago and we are beginning to see the benefits of these districts with businesses like AKG and Morinaga that brought well-paying jobs. However, we need to continue the push, not just by encouraging more businesses to relocate here, but to help our existing local businesses. It is about creating more jobs that will enable more people to live in Orange County.

The quarter-cent sales tax approved in 2011 benefits our economic development landscape by placing the necessary infrastructure in our county to lure new businesses in. However, it aides existing small businesses as well. Therefore, I will continue to support this quarter-cent sales tax as it is currently designated to support education and economic development and will oppose any changes to this designation.

Additionally, we must address our permitting and approval process, which I believe currently makes it prohibitively expensive for businesses to find office space and remain in the county. It is imperative that we diversify our county’s economy in order to create jobs for people of all educational backgrounds: those with college and professional degrees and those without. Diversification of our economy is also imperative from a revenue standpoint, as homeowners currently fund the vast majority of our county’s budget. Increased commercial activity will increase revenue from commercial property taxes and increase sales tax revenues, thereby taking some of the tax burden off of private homeowners.

I believe that it is worth our while to have areas in our county that are poised for projects because the necessary zoning and permitting has already been completed. We have a great opportunity to start state certified business parks, much like what presently exists in surrounding counties. Our economic development districts are an asset but because we lack the infrastructure needed we are still hampered. Rezoning and installing required infrastructure will put us on a better track.

I support the rural buffer as it currently exists. I believe the County, along with Chapel Hill and Carrboro, should preserve the rural buffer. The purpose of the rural buffer is to contain the sprawl of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and promote green space around the towns. We see neighboring communities that continue to sprawl without restraint and I believe that is not sustainable or environmentally friendly. My fear is if we start making wholesale changes to the rural buffer then it will be a slippery slope leading to its eventual undoing. To address this concern, I will make sure that any discussions regarding the rural buffer have the full participation of the community to ensure transparency and adhering to the County’s social justice goals requiring public participation.

6. After the tragic shooting death of one-year-old Maleah Williams in Chapel Hill on Christmas Day, what can the Orange County Board of Commissioners do to promote respect, safety, and peace in your communities—particularly those beset by crime?

A county whose residents have the opportunity to live in decent housing, work for a living wage, educate all their children in great public schools, have public transportation and recreational facilities is a county that will naturally bring the better natures of its residents.

I attended the Emancipation Day prayer service for Maleah and it was clear that the community needs to do more. I believe the Orange County Board of Commissioners can be part of the conversation to promote respect, safety, and peace. The Commissioners should work with all three municipalities, the University, and the Sheriff to curb crime in the community. Chapel Hill has a great Community Outreach (previously known as the Community Watch) event every month to engage with those in the Northside community and give them the opportunity to exercise their voice in community issues and make the community safer. Similar Community Watch/Outreach groups exist in West Hillsborough and around the county. I believe that these types of organizations need support all over the County so that neighborhoods and communities connect with one another and have an active role in keeping our neighborhoods crime free.

We must also work on the societal issues we know hurt so many, including in minority communities, with housing and jobs. As a commissioner, I will advocate that the County do more to bring well-paying jobs to Orange County and build housing that is truly affordable because I believe there is a link between crime and lack of opportunity. Moreover, I believe counties and municipalities should press the legislature for more local powers so that we can adequately address the issues of public safety. As a county commissioner, I would ask that this be made part of our legislative agenda and ask that the NC Association of County Commissioners to do the same.

7. Do you have interest in waste-disposal alternatives to landfills in Orange County? If so, what ideas appeal to you? Are there cost benefits to the alternatives you favor?

With the necessary closure of the Orange County Landfill in the Rogers Road community, it has become the policy of the County to ship our waste to a Durham County Waste Transfer station. Shipping our solid waste to other counties is expensive, environmentally unfriendly, and poses immoral burdens on poorer counties with landfills. This can only be a temporary solution to our solid waste disposal. First, I will push for the adoption of pay-as-you-throw for Orange County’s waste collection, something that the Orange County Democratic Party adopted as a preferred policy while I served as chairman. As a Commissioner, I would strive for a regional solid waste solution because all our adjacent counties share our problem. We need to examine technologies such as waste-to-energy or a waste plasma facility and determine whether, together, we can solve the solid waste problem. I would look to the Federal government for grants to fund creating such a regional solution.

8. Is the current school-funding model working for both districts? Should the board revisit the policy that allocates 48.1 percent of general-fund revenue to education?

Several years ago the Commissioners decided to dedicate nearly half of our county’s budget to education. This commitment to public education is commendable and something we should be proud of. This policy was set when the state was more favorable towards public education and we could guarantee that the State would come through with its obligation. With the State not currently funding public education adequately, we need to consider stepping up to fill the gap when it negatively impacts classroom instruction and teacher recruitment and retention. However, I do believe we need to fund schools according to need. If the school districts demonstrate they need more than 48.1% of the county budget, then the Commissioners should strongly consider such requests.

9. Do you support the $125 million bond package to fix aging schools? Even if voters approve it, that’s only one-third of what districts estimate they’ll need. What is your plan for funding the rest?

I do support the bond package for our aging schools. It is unfortunate that we have delayed maintenance and repairs to such an extent that the districts need a bond to begin to make a serious dent in what the facilities need. I believe we need to prioritize our spending, including giving higher priority to our school maintenance needs over a set number of years and may possibly need to increase the education budget to accomplish it. This could include an increase in the recurring capital monies the county gives to both districts to take care of routine maintenance so that maintenance occurs regularly, such as HVAC or kitchen maintenance. The projects not covered by the bond will need to be prioritized over less critical projects in the county’s usual capital improvement process and additional debt can be incurred without voter approval, however the public will need to be informed as to the county’s options and why that particular course will be taken. Nonetheless, the State Treasurer’s office does not recommend assuming more than 15% of a county’s budget in debt maintenance, so there is a limit in terms of how much of the remaining projects can be funded through further debt issuance.

10. The issue of bicycle safety is on the minds of many people in Orange County, particularly in rural areas where road sharing can be challenging. What recommendations could you offer to the ongoing conversation about bikes on roads?

Our County is a destination for people who want to bike through our rural communities and enjoy the beautiful landscapes we have worked so hard to preserve. However, I have heard from those on both sides – cyclists and motorists – that it is not always a peaceful coexistence.

We want cyclists, both those who live here and are tourists, to feel welcomed in our community, but at the same time motorists need to be able to move about the county in a safe way. I believe both camps can agree that safety is of paramount importance. A short-term effort needs to include a public education campaign about the responsibilities of motorists and cyclists in sharing the road, including posting signage in popular routes for cyclists. We need to also have public engagement sessions where we can hear from both sides and understand how to best serve them and mitigate the issues that are occurring.

In the long term I believe one of the ways we can work together is by starting the process of creating more bike paths that go through the county as parks and greenways, in order to offer cyclists, the ability to enjoy the sights of Orange County in a safe manner. Such paths will be a long-term solution, but will be something that will enhance what Orange County offers to county residents and the greater region.

11. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

Nearly 50% of Orange County’s budget currently goes to public education. This policy was developed during a time when the General Assembly was friendlier to public education, raised teacher pay, and kept pace with enrollment growth. We cannot say the same today. Now the legislature makes draconian cuts, so we have to find a way to protect education and services and the answer cannot always be to raise property taxes because those living on a fixed income, such as seniors, cannot afford frequent tax increases. We know that retail sales taxes and commercial property taxes can really help support our schools and the services we know are vital.

The question is just how far we would go to attract business to pay for schools? I would consider commercial ideas that would avail us of more revenue without burdening home owners, including locating high-revenue retail outlets in specified zones, preferably near the Interstates, so long as these stores do not threaten the existence of our home-grown retail stores. Having national stores on our County’s edge already draws our residents to spend in Alamance, Durham, and Chatham counties who then collect those taxes and reinvest in their own communities. We should focus on doing more to bring our residents and their sales taxes home to benefit the community.
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