Orange County Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass has been careful to point out this campaign season that the county's top cop job "doesn't belong to anyone but the citizens of Orange County." While the statement is true, Pendergrass's excellent stewardship of the past 28 years and continued commitment makes him the best citizen to occupy the office for the next four years. We wholeheartedly endorse him.
We also like Clarence Birkhead, but he hasn't done enough to convince us that it's time to uproot Pendergrass, an Orange County icon still keeping the area safe 53 years after he joined the Chapel Hill Police Department.
The tireless 75-year-old sheriff, who makes his rounds at 6:30 a.m. each day, does face some important challenges ahead. He'll need to phase the department into upgrading deputies' radios, which will require a grant but are vital for deputies to be able to communicate with neighboring jurisdictions. He'll also need to add beds to the county jail and better manage the number of federal inmates housed there.
Both men should be commended for their disagreement with the 287(g) program in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which turns local law enforcement into de facto border patrol agents. Though he has fingerprinted arrested suspects, as mandated by law, Pendergrass has refused to target illegal aliens through organized campaigns or checkpoints. Birkhead shares that stance, saying he disagrees with "stopping minorities of any ethnicity to determine their status."
Pendergrass' star shined brightest in 2006, when Alvaro Castillo opened fire at Orange High School, wounding two students. A school resource officer, put in place by Pendergrass a decade earlier, subdued the armed former student before he could carry out his plan that could have killed or injured more people.
Birkhead, 49, is a rising star in law enforcement, with two decades of local experience and an impressive academic résumé. He served as Duke's chief of police prior to coming to Hillsborough, where he led the department for five years before resigning to run in this campaign. That shows real commitment, but it isn't enough to supplant a proven, effective leader such as Pendergrass.
Birkhead has done a good job in Hillsborough in his short time there, and he may well make an exemplary sheriff one day, whether in Orange County or elsewhere. Yet we don't see any reason to chance it with a fresh face when a proven commodity like Pendergrass is still raising his hand to serve.
We understand why Orange County voters decided to move to a district system, and we continue to support the effort to gain better representation for northern residents, but we're not that enthused about the way the process is playing out thus far.
The fear among district system opponents was that conservatives from northern Orange would win in District 2 and seize control of the commission. That hasn't happened, and the problem lies in District 1—which comprises the majority of Chapel Hill and Carrboro—where there has been no competition in the 2008 and 2010 elections. (This year, veteran Commissioner Alice Gordon, who, to her credit, is attending forums despite having no one to debate, is unopposed in District 1.)
We want to see a system where every elected official faces competition for a seat and has to defend and publicize his or her record and goals. It's a shame that redistricting hasn't lived up to that ideal.
The at-large seat includes three-term incumbent Barry Jacobs, Carrboro Alderman Joal Hall Broun and former Hillsborough Mayor Joe Phelps.
We strenuously endorse Barry Jacobs. He has a track record of leading on the county's environmental and social issues, and gives us confidence that he can preserve the beauty of the county while moving it forward financially.
Jacobs' 19-page questionnaire answers show his immense experience, both locally and regionally, as a leader of intergovernmental organizations. He's by far the best versed in the issues, and in office, he often is the one moving the board forward with pragmatic solutions.
We can't see any reason to cut the county off from this type of leadership and institutional memory and expertise. Even as we admire the work Broun has done in Carrboro, Jacobs best represents the county at-large, which is the intent of the seat.
We question Broun's decision to run at-large instead of in District 1, where she lives. She could split the progressive vote with Jacobs. That opens the door for Phelps, a realty company owner who is running on a platform of broadening the commercial tax base at any cost—apparently inspired by the damaging policies of his southern neighbor, Chatham County.
As Hillsborough mayor, Phelps developed a reputation for not being a team player with other Orange County municipalities and the commissioners.
Earl McKee and Renee Price are squaring off in District 2. We endorse Price,whose 17 years of service on county boards and commissions and her leadership in defeating the Elizabeth Brady Road Bypass project set her apart.
She pledges to continue to advocate for water and sewer lines in neighborhoods that lack them and to support planning that reduces car miles traveled.
McKee, a member of the planning board who has been a frequent face at commissioner meetings of late, didn't define his stances enough to gain our endorsement. We expect a candidate who runs on a platform of reducing expenditure to be able to say where the fat should be trimmed. When asked to identify a principled stand he would take if elected, McKee said he would cut spending to avoid tax increases, but he didn't tell us where.
Orange County voters have a chance to redefine the school board by electing four members to the seven-person body. Susan Hallman and Ted Treibel are not running for re-election, but two incumbents, Chairwoman Anne Medenblik, and first-term member Debbie Piscitelli want to hang on to their posts They are joined by six challengers in this race.
In addition to fighting to fund school programs, the four elected members will have to wade through every school board member's political nightmare: redistricting. The board decided last week to hire a consultant to help redraw the maps after members were confronted with data showing overcrowding in two elementary schools and too few students in another. They also found a disparity in free and reduced lunch rates at the two high schools.
We're pleased to report that none of the candidates want to follow the path set by Wake County. While they seek to avoid long bus rides for students, each wants to balance that need with the importance of building racially diverse classrooms.
We endorse Anne Medenblik, who separates herself from the field by being the only teacher. She taught accounting and business law in high school, and that, along with her tenure as chairwoman, gives her a unique lens from which to view board policy. We find that perspective to be especially valuable for teacher retention and professional development.
We also endorse Debbie Piscitelli, a pharmacist and owner of Triangle Medical Writing. She was the best versed in the issues raised in our questionnaire, citing dollar totals, stats and studies and the need to lobby legislators while cutting costs.
Our endorsement of Donna Coffey is based on her 30 years in the Orange County Budget office—including 12 as budget director. That sells us.
We also endorse Laura Nicholson, a parent organizer whose bright-eyed optimism is refreshing in this campaign. Earlier this school year, she spearheaded the creation of the K-2 Science Club, a worthwhile after-school program run by parent volunteers at no cost to the system.
Nicholson, who also has fiscal skill as vice president of operations for Signature Brands, should be commended for that kind of creative problem solving. She has shown a propensity to enhance educational opportunity at low cost, which is exactly the charge in the months ahead.
Brenda Stephens, a retired library administrator who served two terms on the board before not running in 2006, would be an excellent choice, as well. However, we were more impressed with the other four candidates we endorsed.
Former Chairman Keith Cook stands ready to serve again, and while his past experience on the board is valuable, we still can't look past the fact that he plagiarized Donna Shalala's speech at a 2004 high school graduation ceremony. That sets a poor example, no matter the level of his contrition, and with other qualified candidates there's no need for voters to give him a second chance.
Will Atherton, an IBM engineer, seems to be a sound candidate, but others bring more educational expertise to the table. Greg Williams didn't respond to our survey, and we wonder how he would balance board responsibilities with his Navy and RTP commitments.