This is the first year of district voting for the Orange County Board of Commissioners. A referendum passed in 2006 expanded the number of seats from five to seven and established district representation. Under the new system, there are two at-large seats for which all county residents may cast ballots. The remaining seats are divided by district; candidates run in the district in which they live, and voters may select only from candidates in their district.
The goal of these changes was to give voters in the rural, northern part of the county a stronger voice. Many northern Orange residents are leery, saying the current board makeup serves them better than in years past and that districts might end up balkanizing county politics. We hope that will not be the case.
The Democratic primary will decide most of the board's composition, since no Republicans are running in Districts 1 or 2.
District 1 encompasses Chapel Hill and Carrboro and will eventually have three seats. Two of those seats are up this year. Incumbent Commissioner Valerie Foushee and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board chair Pam Hemminger—both excellent candidates—are running uncontested.
District 2 encompasses the rest of the county. One of its two seats is up this year.
Most candidates agree that economic development and job creation are northern Orange County's greatest needs—but exactly what type of jobs and businesses will bring the best quality of life is a topic of debate. There is concern that the Buckhorn Village shopping center planned between Efland and Mebane will exacerbate sprawl and diminish air quality while providing only low-paying service jobs. In general, commissioners must be sensitive to the need for balance in luring desirable businesses with protecting the environment and preserving the county's crucial land use policies.
We endorse Leo Allison, a retired IBM employee from Efland. Of the four candidates seeking this seat, Allison has the most public service experience in Orange County. He served for six years each on the county's planning board, social services board, human rights and relations board, and the ABC board. He was also the first non-attorney to chair the board of Legal Aid of North Carolina. Allison is best known for his work on behalf of the county's senior center and on issues affecting senior citizens. Allison says his top three priorities are to grow the commercial tax base, relieve pressure on residential property taxpayers and establish a long-term water conservation plan. He also says he wants to develop jobs, protect family farms and improve the graduation rate in all county schools through equitable funding.
An Orange County resident for more than 50 years, Luther K. Brooks is pastor at St. James Baptist Church in Durham and is best known for his impressive 20-year effort to revitalize the historically black Walltown neighborhood there. As president of Walltown Neighborhood Ministries, Brooks partnered with Self-Help Credit Union and Duke University to renovate 75 rental units and turn them into affordable single-family homes. The Hillsborough resident says his priorities are to advance the Buckhorn Village project, establish a waste transfer site and provide the public with information on county decisions.
Tommy McNeill is a retired Air Force reservist who owns a pharmaceutical business. He lives in eastern Orange County and is president of his homeowners' association. McNeill cites economic development and farmland preservation as priorities, and says he would take a principled stand in favor of merging the county's two school systems.
Steve Yuhasz is a land surveyor from Hillsborough who has served on the county planning board for six years and the economic development commission for three. He says he would advocate for a comprehensive land use plan that manages "the reality of coming growth" in a way that respects the property rights of rural landowners.
The first of two at-large seats will also be elected this year. We enthusiastically endorse Bernadette Pelissier, a retired social science researcher and former chair of the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority board. Lately, she has been active on the county planning board and the Trianglewide Special Transit Advisory Committee, which seeks to build a long-range regional transit system. Her impressively thorough Indy questionnaire demonstrates fluency with and deep understanding of the complex, interrelated issues of economic growth, planning, environmental preservation, health, education and social justice. We are confident that Pelissier will be an excellent commissioner for Orange County.
Neloa Barbee Jones is an educational consultant who's been a passionate and dedicated advocate for the Rogers and Eubanks Road community where she lives. Decades ago, the county sited a landfill in that historically African-American neighborhood; now the landfill is full, and the commissioners are considering whether to put a waste transfer station in the same area. Jones has shown determination in her fight for environmental justice. She has also shown genuine interest in broader county issues of affordable housing, economic development and environmental protection. We hope she will continue to stay involved in county issues.
Mary Wolff is a self-employed graphic designer who says maintaining the quality of the county's schools is her top priority. She has demonstrated little understanding of the complex financial and environmental issues facing the county. Wolff is married to Kevin Wolff, the Republican candidate who will face the winner of this race in November.
With only 7,000 students, Orange County's school system is often overshadowed by the highly rated Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, but the county's schools are also among the best in the state. Yet they face the same problems facing other public schools: high suspension rates, an achievement gap between African-American and white students, too little funding and federally mandated testing.
The county school system also faces a systemic inequity that shows no sign of resolution: By law, the county commissioners must fund both school systems equally according to per-pupil allocation. However, a district tax provides additional funding to CHCCS. (County residents voted down a district tax in 2006.) So no matter how much funding Orange County schools receive, CHCCS gets more.
Merging the two systems is a highly contentious notion that has brought heated opposition from constituents in both districts. For now, the best county schools can hope for is to manage resources well and persuade commissioners to fund their budget request as fully as possible.
The biggest issues this year involved inequity within the district. Hillsborough Elementary, a year-round school-of-choice, has the second- lowest free and reduced lunch population in the county, while Central Elementary—a half-mile down the street—has the highest. Central and Efland-Cheeks Elementary failed to make adequate yearly progress in math two years running under No Child Left Behind. In an effort to increase diversity and prevent an exodus from already struggling schools, the board made a controversial decision to distribute Title I improvement money to pre-K programs systemwide and set a cap on the number of students from any district who could attend Hillsborough.
Incumbent Liz Brown, who has taken much heat from Hillsborough parents over the plan, has decided not to run again. Dennis Whitling resigned in February after being charged with embezzling money from the law firm where he worked. That leaves three seats to fill this year on the seven-member board.
Stephen H. Halkiotis is the best known candidate, thanks to his 20 years as an Orange County commissioner and more than 30 years working for the Orange County school system. The Hillsborough resident was a popular high school principal and is married to former school board member Susan Halkiotis. If elected, Halkiotis says he would do a comprehensive review and analysis of all school programs and needs; develop concrete, measurable plans for tackling the achievement gap; reach out to parents before their kids are school age; and overhaul the way the budget proposal is done. That last point is key: Halkiotis has a deep understanding of how to present a successful budget request to the commissioners, and that could help the county schools significantly. Frank, sometimes outspoken, Halkiotis can be larger than life. We hope he will be mindful of the need for collegial relationships with board colleagues.
Eddie M. Eubanks is a retired social worker from Hillsborough who says his priorities are to find sources of education funding not tied to property tax and to reduce or eliminate the achievement gap. Eubanks would bring much needed diversity to the board—since incumbent Keith Cook lost his re-election in 2006 following a plagiarism incident, the board has lacked a minority representative. (Members of the Orange County NAACP have put their support behind Eubanks.) We believe Eubanks will strive to increase academic achievement for all students in the system, not just those with strong parent advocates.
Tony McKnight is a training consultant for the N.C. Department of Labor. He ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2006, but then as now, he raises good points and promotes admirable objectives. He lists increasing student achievement and addressing the dropout and suspension rate as his top goals. He has been a teacher and coach and his children attend the schools. We're disappointed McKnight has not run a better campaign, but we were impressed by his answers to our questionnaire. He, too, would provide much-needed diversity on the board, and we believe he will take seriously urgent issues facing minority students.
Stan Morris is an operations officer with the American Red Cross who lives in Rougemont. Like Eubanks, he favors looking at alternative funding streams through partnerships with businesses and nonprofits. His other priorities are "character development" and greater integrity in the communication process between the board and parents. We believe Morris would also strive for educational opportunities for all students rather than advocate for a specific group.
Al Hartkopf is the only incumbent in the race. He and his wife, conservative lobbyist Kathy Hartkopf, run a project management company in Hillsborough.
Hartkopf has worked hard in his first term on the board and been responsive to parents. But he has also inflamed emotions over the Hillsborough Elementary issue, pitting upset parents against his board colleagues.
Jeff Michalski works for Caring Family Network, a nonprofit that works with "high-risk" kids and families. He taught in the Durham Public Schools and was the school resource officer at two schools in Orange County. Like Hartkopf, Michalski is a parent of a Hillsborough Elementary student, and he's running due to his anger at the board's actions regarding that school. He says that all county schools should be "schools of choice." We find some of his rhetoric on the issue downright unsettling.
Last August, the General Assembly gave cash-strapped counties permission to present voters with the option of approving a 0.4 percent transfer tax on property sales. Ever since, those counties have been weighing their urgent need for revenue with political reality: rushing a transfer tax onto the ballot before voters have been persuaded would mean certain, unequivocal defeat.
That political reality was borne out last fall, when 16 counties, including neighboring Chatham, saw the tax defeated by a large margin after the N.C. Association of Realtors and N.C. Homebuilders Association pumped more than a million dollars into an anti-"home tax" campaign.
Now Orange County—long troubled by high property taxes and a low commercial tax base—presents the question to its voters. We say, vote for. The tax would provide urgently needed revenue to build schools, parks and other infrastructure needs. County staff estimates it would generate about $3.5 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year.
The proposed tax would be assessed on all real property sales, including houses, commercial buildings and undeveloped land, though it would not apply if property is deeded to heirs. The tax would be 0.4 percent of a property's value, so that if a home sells for $250,000 (the current median in Orange County), the seller would be responsible for paying $1,000 in tax at the time the deed is registered; the tax becomes part of closing costs. If voters approve, the Orange County commissioners could vote to enact the tax, which would take effect July 1.
Opponents say the land transfer tax burdens people struggling to sell their houses in a difficult real estate market, and that it unfairly targets one group of people—home sellers—to pay for countywide needs.
But we believe it's much less regressive than a sales tax increase (also approved by the legislature) and see the limited number of people affected as a plus; it would not burden those living on low and fixed incomes who are already struggling to stay in their homes.
Orange County commissioners have taken heat for spending money on a poll and voter-education campaign, but we think both are justifiable considering the formidable resources Realtors are expending to oppose the tax.
If the transfer tax can't pass in Orange County, we have little hope it can pass elsewhere. That's why it's so important for voters to say yes.
Four seats are up for grabs in the District Court Judge 15B race, but only one fielded enough candidates to warrant a primary. Three candidates are running in this nonpartisan race for Patricia Devine's open seat: Page Vernon, Lamar F. Proctor Jr. and Glenn Gerding.
We endorse Page Vernon. One of the most highly credentialed attorneys in the district, she worked as an assistant district attorney with Wade Barber for three years. She went on to work in private practice, joining Barber's law firm in Pittsboro, where she worked for 11 years. Later she taught law clinics at Duke and UNC law schools. Vernon has the overwhelming support of attorneys in her district.
Glenn Gerding worked as a public defender before going into private practice. He is a fine lawyer, but lacks Vernon's breadth of experience.
Lamar F. Proctor Jr. works as an assistant district attorney, specializing in sexual assault cases. He lacks Vernon's and Gerding's decisiveness, and has less experience.
For the last two election cycles, choosing among the candidates for the Chatham County Board of Commissioners has been pretty easy. After the 2002 race, when three of the five seats were decided in an election polluted by outside developer money, outraged Chatham residents organized. They formed citizen groups around various issues, created and funded a grassroots political action committee, and united their voices to call for an overhaul of policies on growth to better protect the environment while planning for schools, utilities and other support systems to handle the residential boom that's turning the eastern half of the county into suburbia.
In 2004 and 2006, leaders emerged from that citizen movement to seek commissioner seats. Everybody didn't agree with everybody else about everything—even within the northeastern citizen movement, never mind the dissent between the two vastly different worlds that are almost-the-Triangle eastern Chatham and the more rural, less affluent western half of the county. But in general, the choices between the white hats and the black hats were pretty clear, and voters filled the board with candidates who promised to champion public interests over private ones.
This primary cycle, the two incumbents up for re-election face challenges from two leaders of the same citizen uprising that swept them into office four years ago. The incumbents assert they've kept their promises to the grassroots constituency that put them in power and done a good job instituting sorely needed change on many political fronts. The challengers, who've garnered endorsements from the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club and the Chatham Coalition PAC they formerly led, argue the incumbents have let supporters down and insist they could do a better job. It's a hotly contested competition that's splitting some close alliances.
Though the two sides are running as slates, the Indy endorses one very qualified challenger and one incumbent who deserves a second term.
Though we strongly supported incumbent Patrick Barnes four years ago and commend him for his successes—including, as supporters quip, "bringing Cary to heel" on annexation and water and sewer issues—we've chosen to back challenger Sally Kost. A former budget director in Orange and Wake counties, Kost brings a skill set that's sorely needed on this board, which faces a massive undertaking in funding new schools to accommodate the children under all its new rooftops. Kost has been active in county politics at the grassroots level for the last four years. She currently serves as chairwoman of the planning board, played a significant role on the major corridors task force whose recommendations will shape economic development across the county, and has thoughtful, practical ideas for moving Chatham toward a "clean, green economy."
She's smart and will work hard at the people's business, as well as expand the diversity of what's now an all-male board.
Barnes, a lifelong Chatham resident and general contractor, has engendered criticism—including from former fans—for acting as a lone wolf on issues, rather than seeking consensus and compromise. And he's become somewhat infamous for too-frequent emotional outbursts in public, which are not helpful in a contentious political atmosphere. That said, in a less competitive race, Barnes would have our support for a second term, but Kost's candidacy provides voters a chance to strengthen the county's leadership.
The winner will face newcomer Jeanna Bock, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
We strongly supported incumbent Mike Cross four years ago, citing the retired Navy officer's activism as the founder of the Southeast Chatham Advisory Council, a citizen group that organized around industrial pollution and other issues specific to his corner of the county. Shortly after taking office, however, Cross came under a flurry of criticism—including in these pages—for voting with the developer-friendly then-majority to approve Briar Chapel, the mega-subdivision that had become the county's poster child for growth gone awry. Cross said at the time that the approved plan was a better deal than before he helped negotiate revisions, including the addition of affordable housing—a priority he has championed steadily since, in both his role as a public official and in his professional life.
We don't always agree with him on policy and believe he made some mistakes in his first term, including signing off on foolish contracts concerning the county manager's employment and the purchase of water from Harnett County (the latter of which was later reversed). Yet on a board whose majority has only two years' tenure, Cross' experience—even in learning from his mistakes—is valuable. And he deserves a lot of credit for doing the heavy lifting on pushing the General Assembly to approve the option for counties to enact a land-transfer tax—for which he is now being targeted for ouster by the "sprawl lobby."
Cross' refusal to pander to the Chatham Coalition PAC—or indeed, to any particular supporters, following a mantra, as he put it in his Indy questionnaire, to "always vote my own convictions for the good of the whole"—generated a primary challenge from Jeffrey Starkweather, who co-founded and chaired the Chatham Coalition.
Jeffrey Starkweather, an attorney and former newspaperman, has demonstrated devotion to grassroots politics for 35 years. Over the last six, he has worked tirelessly, not only with groups like the coalition and Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, but also in appointed positions on the planning board and the economic development commission.
While we agree with Starkweather on most policy questions—and applaud his organizing—we cannot support his candidacy. As the primary force behind the Chatham Coalition, Starkweather has become a lightning rod for divisiveness, engendering a political backlash to the coalition's agenda. Additionally, his tendency to embrace complex processes over efficient outcomes and to browbeat those who don't share his views detract from his potential to govern. With Chatham's recent churn, what's needed on the dais now are cool heads and the ability to compromise.
A third Democrat, Armentha Lee Davis, did not respond to our questionnaire. She is the former vice chair of the county Democratic Party and has campaigned on a platform of economic development and reducing taxes.
The winner of the primary faces Republican Andy Wilkie, who is running unopposed.