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Schoolyard slugfest 

It simply reeks of small-town charm: When the Hillsborough Planning Board met on June 1 (at the municipal building they call the Town Barn, no less) to consider electing a new chairman, the eight members in attendance wrote their preferences on little slips of paper and handed them to town planning director Margaret Hauth. Candidates Paul Newton and Bryant Warren, whose views on development are decidedly different, split the vote as they had at the previous month's meeting. Not sure how to break the tie, the board members agreed to flip a coin. Newton called heads, and won.

There's nothing inherently wrong with flipping coins, or drawing lots, or otherwise leaving simple decisions to chance. But the Hillsborough Planning Board is no longer the homey civic club it once was, approving the occasional sidewalk plan and landscape enhancement. With large chunks of undeveloped land ripe for the plucking, the town has seen a slow but steady increase in applications for large projects that demand a level of professionalism and expertise alien to past boards. Coin flips, while not technically invalid, hardly inspire confidence in the ability of the board to act decisively in a pinch.

And while Hauth says the board saw no easy way out of the deadlock, one certainly existed, as the board has nine members. Unfortunately, one was missing from the June meeting, and only six showed up in May. A decision might have been reached in April when a new chairman was originally to have been considered, says Newton, "but they forgot to put it on the agenda."

The Planning Board meeting exposed additional problems with the way the board conducts its business. The secret paper ballot violated the state's open meetings law, and the board did not follow its own procedural rules in the process. Moreover, the meeting agenda called for the election of the chairman after two other items, but was pushed to the front after one chronically late member, Barrie Wallace (whose preference for chairman was well known), failed to show up at the appointed starting hour--if she wasn't there when the vote was taken, the others reasoned, one of the candidates would get a majority. Wallace arrived as the ballots were being distributed, foiling the plan.

The cumulative impression left by such behavior, as one town official acidly notes, is "Man, these are a bunch of yokels we can take advantage of."

Just a few days later, Newton was on the losing end of another politically tinged tussle, this one with an uglier underbelly: A judge found Orange County Board of Education candidate Liz Brown not guilty of maliciously and wantonly destroying Newton's signs last October during his campaign for the Hillsborough Town Board of Commissioners. Newton had filed a criminal complaint against Brown after a campaign worker reported seeing her pull up two of his signs along a road. Brown claimed she'd removed the signs because they were obstructing the view in front of two schools, thus posing a traffic hazard, and the judge agreed.

That wasn't the end of the affair, as a Herald-Sun reporter noted. After the verdict, another Orange school board candidate, Al Hartkopf, confronted Brown's husband in the courtroom. Hartkopf, a friend and political ally of Newton's, had placed the signs in question and testified against Brown during the hearing. The two men shouted at each other and had to be separated by deputies before leaving the building. Brown's husband started it by calling him names, Hartkopf said. Did anyone say "Nyah nyah?"

Orange County residents hardly needed another example of dubious conduct by a school board candidate. Keith Cook, who is up for re-election, resigned as chairman last week after he plagiarized a high school commencement speech he gave and then lied about it when first questioned by a reporter.

But the political discourse in Hillsborough and Orange County has become decidedly less civil of late, and Hartkopf's outburst is but one example. Though the tensions between factions in the town and county have always been present--rural northern Orange residents have never felt sympatico with the folks in Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough's picked-on-little-brother resentment of the county periodically emerges--they've been boiling over in recent years as such hot-button issues as school merger and land-use planning have surged to the fore. Merger, in fact, is dominating both the school board and county commissioner races, with candidates on both sides the targets of vitriol and nasty threats.

So perhaps it's no surprise that Newton and Hartkopf oppose merging the county and city school systems, and Brown favors the idea. Newton denies that had anything to do with his taking legal action against Brown, which he says he filed after repeated attempts to get the matter settled amicably. "She wouldn't return my phone calls and she wouldn't respond to the letters [I wrote], so it left me no choice but to file charges," he says.

On the other hand, virtually every candidate for every office in every state has experienced the frustration of having signs removed or trashed. Carrboro Town Council member Joal Broun's signs were defaced with various accusations before the last election. In a high-profile case that made national news years ago, a group of Brown University women scrawled "rapist" on campaign posters of Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. The mayor let it go, as do most pols, who accept the attrition of signs as a hazard that comes with the territory and rarely pursue it (though Newton says that's because the perpetrator is rarely caught in the act).

Divergent political views were the likely impetus for a pair of anti-Newton smear letters mailed to Hillsborough voters before last year's Town Board election. The anonymous letters, composed on a single computer but mailed from Arkansas and Waco, Texas, claimed that Newton was a white supremacist who had been kicked out of college for his extremist views and was considered a "home-grown terrorist." Despite extensive media coverage of the letters and opportunities to rebut the charges, Newton lost the election.

The shrill tenor of what's passing for debate isn't likely to subside any time soon. Hillsborough's zoning ordinances are in serious need of revision, and the town is in the formative stages of a new comprehensive plan that will steer the course of future growth and development. Some residents would also like to see changes in the Planning Department, which Hauth has run since 1992, especially after the town was caught flat-footed by a proposal for an asphalt plant that is now the subject of a lawsuit.

Internal battles over those issues are already taking shape as Town Board and Planning Board members jockey for position and what could be a thin majority. An overlapping coalition of liberals and residents of the downtown historic district is facing off against a more conservative group of pro-growth advocates with a property rights bent. The latter includes Newton, Hartkopf and Mayor Joe Phelps; all are members of the politically active Friends of Hillsborough. Phelps' sister has again applied for a vacant position on the Planning Board, even though she was rejected by the county last year after being approved by the Town Board--with Phelps casting the deciding vote.

Combined with the recent spate of ad hominem attacks, such maneuverings have some locals worried that the town and county are becoming polarized in a way that closes off the possibility of compromise that would ultimately benefit everyone. A yes-or-no merger war without careful consideration of the issue's complexities will only hurt the kids, now and in the future. The same is true if Hillsborough officials make decisions based on ideology rather than efficacy. "It's not about what's best for the town any more," says one Hillsborough official. "It's about winning."

Newton doesn't see any problems on the horizon. He's written several editorials in the News of Orange County blasting Town Board members for votes, including one on the location of an alternative school in which he accused the board of NIMBYism (though he now allows that the choice was a good one). Asked if such public disdain might prove more divisive than helpful, especially since he still has aspirations to serve on the board with the subjects of his criticism, Newton disagrees. "There's always going to be healthy discussion about issues," he says, "and not everyone is going to agree on all the points....

"Politics are personal." EndBlock

Contact Burtman at burtman@indy week.com

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