Pam Hemminger | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Pam Hemminger 

Chapel Hill Mayor

Name as it appears on the ballot: Pam Hemminger
Party affiliation, if any: Democratic
Campaign website: PamHemminger.com
Occupation & employer: Owner Windaco Commercial Properties LLC
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 29

Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

I am running for mayor because there is a huge disconnect between what Chapel Hill citizens want—and even what our leaders say they want—and the choices the mayor and Council are making for Chapel Hill. For example:

Our mayor and Council say we need to rebalance our tax base with more commercial development, yet they keep approving overwhelmingly residential projects, limiting our options for commercial space in the future and deepening our reliance on residential taxes.

They say we need more moderate-priced housing but they keep approving luxury and student apartments, with only small affordable components and no net housing gains for the moderate-wage teachers, town employees, and university workers. We have no goal for the number of affordable units we want, no strategic plan for getting them.

They say they value environmental protections but allow building in protected stream corridors and write town ordinances that don’t require energy efficient buildings or open green spaces.

They say we stand for social justice but then do not honor their commitments to groups like the Rogers Road community, which hosted our landfill for more than forty years.

They say they value public participation but consistently ignore the work of task forces and the recommendations of their advisory boards.

As mayor, here’s how I would repair this disconnect:

Attract commercial development, particularly office space, and
new investment. One of my priorities is diversifying the tax base and building a more robust economy. There are opportunities for private-public partnerships to build moderately priced office space to attract new and expanding R&D and tech companies.

Plan for the changing retail and employment landscape. Shopping is increasingly moving online; more and people work from home or as independent contractors. I will stop planning for the twentieth century and get the town thinking proactively about getting the workspaces, housing, and transit we’ll need in the future.
Partner with developers who want to provide moderately priced housing. I will make sure the town actively seeks out the kind of development we want. I’ve met with local builders who tell me that even with Chapel Hill’s high land prices, it is possible for the market to build housing for medium-income residents.
Take a firm stand on environmental protection. I vow to continue Chapel Hill’s strong track record of protecting our streams, encouraging energy-efficient building, and maintaining natural green spaces to balance the growing density of our built environment.

Make our government more responsive to citizens. I pledge to not just take input from citizens but reach out to them, foster true dialogue, and respond promptly to their concerns. I will establish new guidelines for prompt response to petitions and make sure that reports of citizen committees are not just accepted by Council but discussed and integrated into the decision-making process.

Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

1. Town character and identity. Chapel Hill’s progressive college town atmosphere is its economic-development calling card. The mayor and Council’s “any development is good development” philosophy threatens what is valuable and distinctive about our town. If we continue down this road, Chapel Hill will be a less desirable place to invest, live, work, play, and raise families.

I will promote thoughtful growth, championing the kind of development that builds on our strengths, gives us the increased density and exciting places that will attract new businesses and energy to town, and keeps us a top-10 college town for decades to come.

2. Affordability and diversity. Chapel Hill is becoming less economically and socially diverse due to the high cost of land, types of development being approved, and siloed decision making by our town, county, and schools.

As mayor, I will set concrete goals for affordable housing, reach out to developers who want to provide housing that is affordable for moderate income workers, and make the smart fiscal decisions that help keep tax increases at bay.

3. Finances. The town is relying on short-term fixes instead of long-range thinking. For example, we are trying to build our way to a balanced budget, yet approving residential-heavy development that often costs more in services than it generates in taxes; we need to put money aside to meet our pension obligations; and we should stop putting our land assets up for sale but instead think strategically of how to land lease them and to create a steady source of revenue.

I have eight years of experience balancing school and county budgets, plus professional work in business management and accounting. As mayor, I will explore ways to move toward long-term fiscal sustainability, stop waiting for development to come to us, and develop a specific plan for increasing our commercial tax base.

What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as mayor or as a member of the Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

During my service as an Orange County commissioner, member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board, and community leader, I have proved that I have the experience, strengths, and leadership qualities to bring people together to accomplish ambitious goals. I’ve also built a reputation for following through on the hard work of turning good plans into great things for our community.

Broad-based experience and understanding of complex issues Housing: My work with organizations like Habitat and Community Home Trust and in commercial real estate have made me well aware of the complexities of providing moderately priced housing and affordable commercial space, as well as the opportunities that collaboration can offer.  Environment: I chair the Upper Neuse River Basin Authority and have been a leader on the boards of various environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Triangle Land Conservancy, so I understand the importance of maintaining our green infrastructure in good health.

Finance: I have worked as a business manager and in financial accounting and served as treasurer for not-for-profit agencies such the Historic Moorefields Foundation and Rainbow Soccer, demonstrating my ability to help organizations achieve and maintain financial sustainability. Commitment to inclusiveness and good government. One of my primary goals in elective office has been to make government open and responsive to my constituents. As county commissioner, I

Made BOCC meetings accessible via live streaming and minutes publicly available within a few weeks, not several months

Helped staff improve the listserv so citizens could receive county government e-mail updates

Went into the community to talk about issues like fire safety, EMS, and economic development in rural areas to hear their concerns and craft good consensus policy going forward.

I also believe it is essential for elected officials to reach out to other leaders and build the solid working relationships that yield good community outcomes. We cannot govern in isolation.

As county commissioner, I reached out personally to Mayor Foy to engage him and the town while we were making decisions about trash disposal, recycling, and economic development.

I championed joint use of public facilities between the town and schools and then between the county and schools. This collaboration brought us the benefits of efficiency and cost savings and promoted better outcomes for the public.

Record of getting the job done
I was able to push through the artificial turf project at Cedar Falls by coordinating between the county (bond funding) and town (administrative scheduling). The project had languished due to lack of communication and understanding that it needed to be located close to those it was meant to serve.
As school board chair, I initiated meetings with the Mayor Foy and UNC leadership to plan for new elementary school sites, which culminated in the building of Northside Elementary.

Please give one specific example of something you think the Town Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

The renewal effort at Ephesus-Fordham was both one of the best and worst things our mayor and Council did in 2014. The idea—planning for infrastructure improvements that would rationalize the road system and allow more walkable development; implementing a form-based code that would provide predictability to the town and builders, encourage redevelopment, and streamline the review process—could have been a wonderful start to revitalizing this important commercial section of town.

But the good idea suffered badly from poor implementation. The mayor, Council, and staff ignored community preferences and the small area plan on issues like heights and open space; they didn’t engage with the small businesses that would be most affected; they skipped developing a strong regulating plan that would make sure we got the kind of place we wanted; they neglected to work with the county early in the process to get their participation in funding infrastructure improvements. As a result, Chapel Hill citizens are now on the hook to pay for all the road improvements ourselves, and the Design Commission is seeing problems with every development application that could have been prevented by careful implementation.

How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I am a progressive. I firmly believe that elected officials should listen and be responsive to their citizens, but I remember to be mindful of those who cannot speak for themselves. In my service as a civic leader, I have worked hard to balance the needs of the community, the desires of different interest groups, and the protection of the overall public good.

New ideas and technologies offer the promise for the future, and it is the role of government to make sure that benefits and burdens are distributed fairly and that change profits all of our citizens, especially those who need the most help. I am committed to using my talents, experience, and energy to help others achieve more and bring our community together to solve complex issues.

The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

The idea of building a more just community is central to my political philosophy and a driving force in my thirty years of service to Chapel Hill and Orange County.

While government has an absolute duty to make decisions that promote justice, fairness, and equality for its citizens, we need to and can do even more. As mayor, I will spearhead efforts that promote justice and make the commitment to follow-through that actually builds the fairer society we say we want.

I have led the county government and schools in playing the important role of convener, facilitating and promoting initiatives that spread the resources of our wealthy community more fairly. I will bring this important focus to the town, which needs to do more to foster these initiatives. For instance, Council was recently petitioned to sponsor a program to feed more than 3300 children who had lost summer food assistance. Food is available, groups are willing to do the work, but they needed someone to lead the program. With a little effort, but almost no cost to the town, we could have gotten this initiative off the ground and helped to feed these children. Instead, our town leaders did nothing—not even respond to the petition.

Our mayor and Council often talk about a just society but don’t follow through to the work of producing change. They discuss making reparations to the Rogers Road community for hosting the town landfill, but so far the only successful initiative is the one I chaired to help build a community center. I worked with my fellow commissioners to make up the funding shortfall after Chapel Hill failed to come up with its promised contribution. I stuck with the project after I left office, helping RENA produce business plans, working with Habitat to secure the land, and shepherded the design/permitting process through the town. I had made a promise to make the community center a reality, and I stuck with it until we achieved our goal.


Small businesses, particularly those on Franklin Street, continue to open and close at an alarming rate. Please give one new idea that you believe will help small business owners steady their operations.

Some of the recent turnover in food vendors was the result of the University increasing its on-campus food offerings, which did hit some businesses hard. I would advocate for more discussion between UNC, the local business community, and town government to help limit, or prepare for, such disruptions.

That said, I believe it’s vital to support a strong and thriving downtown, with attractive home-grown businesses, that will bring people back to Franklin Street to play and shop and dine. I meet many who tell me they no longer come downtown because it’s hard to find parking spaces and hard to interact with our meters. As mayor, I would have the town explore Wilmington’s parking pass program. People pay $35 for an annual pass they display in their car window that entitles them to park in any town lot after 5pm. It is a simple and effective way to get more people to come downtown and support local merchants and restaurants.

I would also help downtown by championing development that promotes more
office space and family housing. Our stores and businesses need a consistent base of customers and cannot rely on a nine-month student population for success. More offices downtown and more full-time residents will bring more vibrant street life, new patrons, and more economic success to our downtown merchants.

Between the Ephesus-Fordham district redevelopment and the newly approved Obey Creek development, Chapel Hill has seen a bevy of high-density, mixed-use proposals move forward in recent years. How do you balance such development with lingering environmental concerns such as protecting local creeks and limiting stormwater runoff?

Decades ago, the town decided to establish a rural buffer, to keep growth primarily within town limits and to protect the farms and open space around us. We also established strong environmental protections to make sure that new, denser development did not come at the expense of the environment within town borders.

I believe in this commitment we made. As we grow I promise to strictly enforce our stream buffer regulations and implement best management practices. I will also make sure that denser developments provide the green space that contributes to important environmental services like slowing stormwater runoff and maintaining the tree cover that keeps us breathing easy.

I still serve as chair of the Upper Neuse River Basin Authority, where I work alongside elected officials from 14 different governmental jurisdictions to develop a toolbox of best management practices (BMPs) that can help reduce stormwater runoff and improve water quality. I pledge to make sure that such BMPs are part of the new projects we approve and are used to retrofit existing development where possible.

In the past, Chapel Hill has set the state standards for environmental protection. We need to continue lead the way in protecting our natural resources and stay up to date with implementing new technologies and best practices in environmental stewardship.

Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Chapel Hill. We've seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.

I have served on the Community Home Trust Board and am currently vice-chair of the Orange Habitat for Humanity Board, so I really understand what a complex problem this is. We have been wrestling with the high cost of Chapel Hill land and
the likely reality that we will no longer be able to build single family affordable homes.

The town is currently only scratching the surface of this issue; we seen small successes, but we need a better, more coordinated overall approach.

Based on my experience and conversations with others in the affordable housing community, I believe that there are three things we can do to make real progress on this issue:

1. Establish comprehensive goals and clear policy.
Right now, the town does not have a target for affordable units, policy on how the penny for housing tax is to be spent, or a plan for responding to anticipated reductions in state and federal funding.

As mayor, I will get town government to step up to set clear goals and create effective policy so that we know what we are trying to accomplish and how we intend to do it.

2. Coordinate and collaborate more effectively.
Piecemeal approaches do not solve the problem. For example, we now make housing groups compete for the same pots of money instead of helping to coordinate their efforts. I have worked with these local groups for years and can bring all the parties together to produce better results more efficiently

3. Work with the private sector.
Right now, the town waits for a development proposal before it starts to consider an affordable housing component. Instead, I would encourage us to seek out new opportunities and ways to maintain our affordable housing stock as we redevelop.

I would encourage the town identify developers willing to build moderate and affordable housing, connect them with owners of older affordable properties (as in the Ephesus Church Road area), and partner to develop them into denser affordable rentals instead of more luxury units. I would also have the town take a leadership role in other efforts, such as getting more owners to accept Housing Choice Vouchers.

In Chapel Hill, the university provides a prosperous retail base, fuel for a feisty cultural scene and a pipeline for local leadership. But its presence also contributes a great deal to Chapel Hill's housing problem. What could the university do better with regard to local housing needs? How would you work to foster such agreements?

There are more and more students moving off campus into newer student complexes and existing neighborhoods, leaving more than 800 empty dorm rooms on campus this year. This cycle hurts the university financially and inflates rental prices in town above what moderate-income families can afford.

As UNC begins its next master planning process, I would engage the town in conversations with them and build a collaborative relationship on this issue to develop a long-term vision for student housing in the community. UNC may need to upgrade some of their existing dorms to compete with the market of new units or require that more students to live on campus; the town may need to decide if it wants to continue to choose student housing projects over family housing projects. Whatever solutions we find, the best balance for both the university and town will be reached after open, collaborative discussion.

Certain Chapel Hill neighborhoods have objected to the light rail line that is currently being planned. They are concerned that the rail line will create dangerous traffic problems and otherwise disrupt their quality of life. What do you believe the city can or should do to address their concerns?

The light-rail issue is complex and ever-evolving. The original route planned as part of the Meadowmont development is now found to be excessively expensive, due to environmental concerns; alternative routes threaten long-established residential neighborhoods.

Because plans for the light rail system represent significant land use, transportation, and financial decisions for Chapel Hill, I believe we need to foster more effective dissemination of information and dialogue between town leaders and their constituencies over and above what is being provided by GoTriangle.
To hear citizen concerns on particular issues, like the placement of LRT lines near or through existing residential neighborhoods, we need do better than the one-way communication and three-minute time limits that occur at council meetings. As mayor, I would make formal mechanisms such as assigning a Council community  liaison for light rail and hosting town hall meetings with the affected neighbors a standard part of the town’s process.

In this particular case, the biggest neighborhood concern relates to the safety of at-grade crossings. Given available computer technology, GoTriangle staff should provide residents and Council with a simulated model of what is being proposed and should be ready to discuss anticipated impacts and demonstrate safety precautions and possible alternatives.

One concern of mine is that the focus on citizen concern about specific options has sidestepped larger routing questions being asked by people throughout the town about the overall route and the fact that it does not connect to downtown Chapel Hill. Given the huge economic investment and impact of the LRT decisions on the town, it's a topic I feel needs to be publicly addressed.

Chapel Hill touts itself for its diversity. Yet, its population is among the most homogeneous in North Carolina. How do you encourage diversity in the town and create policies that increase the town's accessibility?

This issue is at the heart of why I am running for office. Chapel Hill has long valued diversity across race, religion, and socioeconomic situation. Today, the cumulative result of the decisions town leaders have made is to push out the very people who keep our community diverse and healthy. The fact that less than 10% of our population is African American, a group that has long been a cornerstone of our community, is alarming and heartbreaking.

As mayor, I will find out why people are leaving and how to help them stay here. We have to be open to hearing what we are doing badly and really get input from the people most affected. As an elected official, I have personally reached out to the Chinese, Karen, Latino, and African American communities, and I will continue to do so to ask them how we can help. I would also hold town listening sessions to hear the voices that are not usually willing to come to formal town hall meetings. Too often we have conversations around the people most involved and forget to include them in finding a solution. When people feel that their input is not valued, that new people are being treated better, and that prices make it too hard to stay, they move away. I pledge to help find ways to help them stay.

This kind of cultural change in government, coupled with collaboration with other organizations and smart financial decisions that increase the diversity and affordability of our housing stock and keep taxes in check, will provide a good start to making sure Chapel Hill returns to its tradition as a diverse community that is welcoming to all.
  • Chapel Hill Mayor

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