Chatham County's quaint seat of 2,500 residents is poised on the edge of big change. The residential building boom consuming raw land on its perimeter and northward and eastward to the Orange and Wake county lines will permanently change the community, bringing new residents and businesses to a small town anchored by antique shops and mom-and-pops.
That growth, both inside and outside town limits, brings plenty of promising opportunities for Pittsboro's future, but old problems that have long plagued the town need to be solved first. Its aging water and sewer infrastructure has been the subject of many studies and debates—and generated dozens of boil-water advisories—but little action. A land-use plan drafted in the late 1990s but never implemented sits moldering on a shelf, while land for industrial development is rezoned for a giant mall despite the objections of hundreds of residents. Municipal facilities are woefully antiquated and neglected. Several town managers have left after very short tenures—the latest under embarrassing circumstances—causing repeated interruptions in the administration's everyday business.
It's no wonder the incumbents often complain there's no money to repair water pipes or upgrade facilities: Taxes have been raised only once in the last 20 years—in 1997.
It's not just tax revenues and planning processes that have been stagnant: Four years ago, the last time a majority of the five-member town board was up for election, all three incumbents ran unopposed.
What a difference one term makes. This time, six people are vying for the three seats, while three people are competing for the mayor's chair. Not that citizens would know this by the attendance at the only campaign forum this fall: Only the incumbent mayor and three town board challengers, who are all running as a slate called Pittsboro Together, bothered to show up to face questions and share their vision. Those same four candidates also garner our support on Nov. 6. That's partly because engaging with citizens is a large and too-long-ignored part of the job, and the other candidates' absence symbolized what's wrong in Pittsboro. But mostly, it's because Pittsboro citizens are lucky these four are willing to serve—and to ward off the Caryfication of their town.
We support incumbent Randy Voller, who ousted an incumbent two years ago and has since brought lots of fresh ideas and energy to the job. Voller, 38, has successfully reached out to municipal and county leaders across the Triangle to lobby for regional solutions and generate cooperation among jurisdictions, including laying groundwork for long-range water and sewer planning. "It is time to learn from the successes and failures of our Triangle neighbors and chart a course for a new, more sustainable and greener territory," Voller wrote in his Indy questionnaire. Voller has been walking that talk for two years, so although his profession as a real estate developer occasionally lands him in unflattering headlines, we fully endorse him for a second term over challengers Chris Bradshaw and Max Cotten.
Bradshaw, 32, a chemist and political newcomer who heads the anti-tax group Chatham Conservative Voice, brings little experience and few ideas to the table. Cotten, 77, a council member since 1999 who also served eight years in the 1970s, didn't return our questionnaire.
One of the major obstacles to Pittsboro's progress has been that the town's two strongest leaders—Voller and town board member Pamela Baldwin, both elected in 2005—have been stymied by a majority of the board. The mayor votes only as a tie-breaker, and Baldwin is often on the losing end of split decisions. Voters can give progressive voices a majority this time around by seating three new board members. The Independent enthusiastically recommends challengers Michele Berger, Jim Hinkley and Gary Dean Simpson.
Each brings unique talents and qualifications to the table. Berger, 39, is an associate professor at UNC with diverse professional and civic experience and a strong grasp of the issues, with a particular focus on solving Pittsboro's affordable housing shortage.
Hinkley, a professional planner, brings a critical eye to how Pittsboro can grow and nurture a sustainable economy. With experience as a consultant, a county planning board member and a longtime citizen activist, Hinkley also brings a special sensitivity to the need for public input into the public's business—which would be a welcome change in a town whose board chambers allow only a couple dozen spectators, and whose elected officials recently tried to limit the number of times a resident could address them to twice a year.
Simpson, a 63-year-old former minister and nonprofit leader, is a veteran of Chatham County's grassroots revolt, having been a founding board member of the Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, a broad group that coalesced around growth issues in the northeast over the last five years and led the call to reassert public interests over private ones in county government. Simpson will bring a lot of talent and experience to governance, including and especially an ability to see the big picture. He summed up this race in his Indy questionnaire this way: "This election provides a means by which people with a new agenda can be given an opportunity to take the best of a historic small town with its own unique character and build its identity from the grassroots up and from the inside (town center) out. This is a chance to . . . imagine what it would be like to engage and empower citizens to take control of their government and plan their future, rather than simply reacting to the whims of power brokers."
Support for that position is evident in the campaign finance report of the Pittsboro Together slate, which shows nearly $6,000 in donations from 57 individuals during the most recent reporting period; the group has raised $8,500 overall this election.
Incumbent Max Cotten is vacating his seat to run for mayor. Incumbents Gene T. Brooks and Clinton E. Bryan III (who was appointed to replace his late father in March) are both seeking to keep their seats. Neither returned our questionnaire nor attended the only candidates' forum, and with Cotten, have made several bad judgment calls, including approving the recent rezoning of 120 acres for Pittsboro Place—1.3 million square feet of commercial development and 320 homes. Challenger Hugh Harrington is making his first bid for political office with a platform focused on traditional economic development and attracting jobs.