Tom Vanderbeck | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Tom Vanderbeck 

Chatham County Commissioner - District 4

Name as it appears on the ballot: Tom Vanderbeck

Full legal name, if different: Same

Date of birth: 1/15/51

Home address: 8180 Old Graham Road, Pittsboro, N.C. 27312

Mailing address, if different from home: Same

Years lived in Chatham County: 13

Campaign web site: http://www.Vanderbeck4chatham.org

Occupation & employer: Chatham County Commissioner and small-scale sustainable farmer

Home phone: 919-545-2160

Work phone: NA

Cell phone: NA

Email: Tom@vanderbeck4chatham.org


1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing Chatham County? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

The most important issues facing Chatham are economic development, quality education for all children, and managing our growth while maintaining our rural character and small town atmosphere. We have made great progress in these crucial areas over the past three-and-a-half years by implementing a fiscally sound strategy of investing in Chatham's people, places and long-term prosperity. What is at issue in the November election is whether Chatham County will continue down this road of wise investment and careful stewardship or whether it will retreat from the challenges of the twenty-first century.

When I was elected in 2006, we faced the legacy of four years of disdain for careful, fiscally responsible planning. The county's economic situation was dire. We were losing manufacturing and other jobs while a shockingly high 55% of our working population commuted outside the county for jobs. Our schools were inadequately supported, and our children's education was suffering. The previous commission's policy of accommodating residential sprawl was taking the county down the path toward bankruptcy, because new residential development inevitably costs local government more for the provision of services than it generates in tax revenue. We have begun to turn that around.

The candidates running in the Republican primaries have indicated that, if elected, they would reverse the current board's strategies for Chatham County. The Republican campaign literature states that they want to cut our local investment budget by over 20% and restrict the community's right to manage growth and prevent sprawl. Such a return to the discredited policies of the past would be nothing short of tragic.

Economic Development. In conjunction with the UNC Center for Competitive Research and after a year-long process of engagement with our citizens and local businesses, we developed an economic development strategic plan, endorsed by our municipalities and business community. Countywide collaborative efforts are underway to implement that plan. These include: starting a small business loan fund; creating industry "cluster" committees in biopharma, alternative energy and green technology, sustainable agriculture, arts and culture, and wood products; developing an innovative industry incentive program that promotes sustainable businesses and high-paying jobs with benefits; making major investments in our local public schools (see below) and community college; and promoting countywide broadband access. Over time, these efforts will expand our tax base, fund necessary services for our citizens, and provide good-paying jobs inside our county. It would be pennywise and pound-foolish to follow our Republican opponents' strategy of massive cuts in these local economic development investments.

Quality Education. Supporting our schools is the most important investment we can make to grow and attract good-paying jobs. It is also our duty to our young people. This prime investment in our people has been and will continue to be my first priority. Our team of Democratic incumbents has invested in high-quality educational facilities and in the retention and attraction of educators through increasing teachers' supplements. Despite having to cut our overall local county budget by three percent, we were still able to find the money to increase local public school investment by 4 percent. We were one of the few schools systems that did not furlough any teachers during last year's deep recession. We have also made important investments in upgrading and expanding our community college facilities through our new Siler City campus, and library and green technology buildings at the Pittsboro campus — all of which are LEED certified "green" buildings. We have also developed an extremely close collaborative relationship with our outstanding superintendent and the elected school board. Those investments, and that supportive relationship, helped us garner the award as County Commissioners of the Year by the North Carolina School Boards Association.

We still have important educational issues to address, including an unacceptable dropout rate and income-related performance gaps, but we are committed to continuing our substantial investments in education to tackle those issues. Our Republican opponents' proposed massive budget cut would stop these needed improvements and devastate our public schools.

Managed Growth. Chatham is an attractive place in which to live and work. We need to retain and protect our rural character and natural resources, with thoughtful long-range planning which directs growth to our municipalities and preserves our farmland and natural resource assets. We have already substantially upgraded our land-use ordinances and environmental protections through a series of planned-growth strategies that incorporated existing land-use regulations. We have enacted new watershed and storm water control ordinances. We need to continue developing comprehensive long-range sustainable development strategies and land-use tools for the protection of our natural resources and quality drinking-water supply. New residential growth should be within walkable mixed-use towns and communities. But we also need to incorporate into our land-use strategies critical programs such as increased youth and outdoor recreational facilities and programming, incentives for energy conservation and greenhouse gas reductions, promotion of eco, agricultural and arts/culture tourism, waste reduction and related eco-economic development strategies, and other measures that enhance the quality of life in Chatham. Our Republican opponents would eviscerate these strategies and return the keys to Chatham County to the sprawl lobby.

Despite facing the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, we were able to make these investments in our long-term economic prosperity in a fiscally prudent manner. And, we did so despite facing increasing demand for services mandated by the state and federal government. I am committed to continuing and — as the economy permits — expanding our investment in our people, places and future prosperity.

I am also committed to another form of investment: earning, every day, the trust of our citizens. We have operated on the principle that all our citizens should be able to look at their local government and say, "government is us." We need to continue, and expand on, our successful efforts to involve our citizens in policymaking through numerous citizen advisory boards and task forces. We also need to further expand our extensive efforts to provide efficient, effective, open and responsive government with citizen-friendly county meetings and accessible on-line resources.

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Chatham County Commission? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

My term has given me the experience to better accomplish objectives from within the government. I am a team player and consensus-builder and work well with the current team of commissioners. We have gotten a lot done in three-and-a-half years. My participation on a large number of county boards has expanded my knowledge. I am currently the rural county government representative on the statewide e-NC Authority, the rural broadband advocacy organization. I also serve on the Triangle Area Rural Planning Organization and Orange-Person-Chatham Mental Health Board. I serve as a member or county board liaison on the following county board and task forces: Affordable Housing Advisory Board, County Broadband Committee, Chatham Transit Network, the future Transportation Advisory Board, Pittsboro-Siler City Convention and Visitors Bureau, Green Economy Task Force, Green Building and Sustainable Energy Advisory Board, Housing Coalition of Chatham and Solid Waste Advisory Committee, I will continue to utilize these experiences to work for a better future for the people of Chatham.

Our county board team has demonstrated leadership in operating a citizen-driven, sustainable community-development strategy, versus the all-too-common top-down model. Citizen input has been critical, providing us with expert advice and assistance. We have also developed collaborative and cooperative working relationships with other government bodies, both regionally and statewide. This has been particularly true for our three towns, board of education and school staff, and local chamber, merchants associations and businesses. Given the challenges a growing rural county faces, we must do everything we can to bring everybody together.

In sum, our leadership style is "grass-roots," in which we promote fact-based and open-minded problem solving in collaboration with our citizens and other government, business and non-profit partners. This is direct contrast to the "Astroturf" style of our opponents who want to impose top-down, ideologically driven solutions.

3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I am not a career politician. Instead, I consider myself a citizen legislator who was drafted to help implement a citizen-driven, non-partisan, sustainable community strategy. While I am a Democrat and the nominee of the Democratic Party, my job is to represent all the citizens of the county regardless of party, ideological orientation, area of the county or length of residence. I have received support from and listen to Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliateds, progressive and conservatives on such issues as smart growth, quality education, rural broadband access, farmland preservation, sustainable agriculture and food processing, economic development, public transit and transportation, affordable housing, solid waste, water quality, green building and energy conservation.

The most important aspect of my political philosophy is that government must be "we," not "me". As an elected official, my two most important tasks are to be a responsible steward of our county and to listen to and engage in collaborative problem solving with my fellow Chatham residents. I see it as my duty to be honest and transparent and to respect those who bring different points of view or experiences to the problems we jointly face as a growing county. I understand that we have inherited a long and somewhat entrenched history of geographic, racial, economic and cultural divides, and that some in our community want to exploit or expand those divides. We have worked hard in the last four years to attempt to bridge those differences. I believe we have made substantial progress in bringing people together around collaborative problem-solving, particularly in the area of economic development. We are committed to encouraging the input and involvement of all citizens of our county in improving our communities and the quality of all our residents.

4. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

I have supported the efforts of the Human Relations Commission to improve inclusion and equal opportunity for all, and I will continue to do so. All our residents, regardless of their social or financial situation, sexual orientation, race, color or creed should have an equal opportunity to be heard and have a high-quality life. Every child should be provided with a quality education, and everyone should have access to the benefits Chatham has to offer. Ultimately, the most effective way to promote a just community is to be able to offer, on a non-discriminatory basis, good-paying jobs with benefits to all our residents who are able and willing to work. There will always be those in our community who — due to age, disability or other circumstances beyond their control — cannot work, and we need to provide them with a safety net for education, food, shelter, safety, mental health, health care and other basic services

5. What specific steps should the county commissioners take to preserve and protect Chatham's environment and natural resources? What do you feel needs updating in Chatham County's land conservation and development plan? State specific initiatives or policies you would introduce and support to accomplish these updates.

We're now seen as a model county because of the great strides we have made in protecting our environment and natural resources. We need to continue that protection. This involves thoughtful long-range planning and a vision for the future. Our current land-use plan has the endorsement of our local governing bodies. It never had an accompanying map showing where residential and commercial development should occur. The map needs to be prepared. It needs to show where and how our major corridors will be developed. Developers want to know where we encourage growth and where we want to maintain our rural/agricultural beauty. Our residents don't want to be surprised when a major development is proposed for their locale. Future planning by the previous board majority was "willy-nilly" and left to the developers to plan our future. Things have now changed, and we need to continue that progress.

I will support a reasoned, fact-based, comprehensive, sustainability plan and map, which includes all of the latest land use, sustainability and smart growth standards, incentives and tools that our residents feel will work here in Chatham. We want to continue to be a forward-thinking "model" rural county dedicated to protecting our natural resources, rural beauty and character. This is an essential for our quality of life. It is an essential marketing instrument for growing and attracting high-quality businesses and industries that provide high wages with good benefits to employees. It is the right thing to do for our world.

Our comprehensive plan should include the following sustainable strategies: public transit; walkable communities; recycling; zero-waste and eco-industrial solid-waste strategies; energy conservation and alternative energy; expanded recreation amenities; affordable housing; strategically located economic-development centers; sustainable agriculture and farmland preservation; and eco, agricultural and arts/cultural tourism enhancement. It should empower our citizens to control their own destiny and community quality, rather than allow it to be controlled by outside developers, real estate interests or a few large landowners.

6. Define "economic development." What does that term mean to you? Do you believe Chatham County heavily relies on property taxes? How would you grow the economy and agricultural possibilities to lessen that reliance without focusing entirely on residential development? What specifically can you do as a county leader to strengthen and support Chatham's economy? How would you work to bring new businesses and jobs to Chatham County?

Economic development is often confused with economic growth. Economic growth refers to the expansion of current economic activities -- more of the same type of jobs, overall income increases, more people, more residential and commercial development, more sprawl regardless of the negative impacts of this growth on the environment, character of your community and quality of life. The indicator for growth is usually the gross domestic product, total property valuation or per capita income. I was opposed to the approach of the previous administration, which focused exclusively on residential growth, and this prompted my run for office in 2006.

Economic development is a more holistic concept that promotes a balance of social, economic and environmental changes that enhance the quality of life for a community. It is a concept that is incorporated into sustainable community development. This is the strategy we have pursued and that I will continue to support. The indicators for economic development that we should follow include graduation and literacy rates, poverty rates and income equality, average pay for local jobs, percent of population who are able to work in the county at good-paying wages, environmental quality, leisure time opportunities, educational performance, health status of residents, crime rates, social mobility, etc.

We clearly have an unsustainable over-reliance on residential property taxes. Economic studies have demonstrated that residential development cannot support the facilities and services the new residents require. The problem is particularly acute in Chatham because 55% of the residents commute out of the county for jobs. Most people shop where they work. Thus, we have one of the highest sales-tax leakages in the state. Since the previous board neglected to address our local economic decline and the need for a new economic development strategy, the wages for those who work in Chatham are substantially below the state average. Many of these low-paying local jobs will continue to leave the United States due to cheaper wages overseas. And so, we must have an economic development strategy that cultivates good-paying local jobs and encourages our residents to shop locally.

Our state legislature has severely limited our revenue options, forcing an over-reliance on residential property taxes. While Chatham County does have the authority to enact a local impact fee on new development to help pay for educational facilities, the current impact fee does not cover the costs for these new students. The law limits this fee to a flat rate, so we are unable to raise it proportionately based on the size of the house. We have been reluctant to raise this fee to what will actually pay for the education facilities, because of the adverse impact on modest income families. We are seeking an alternative revenue option to replace the fee. We would prefer to obtain legislative authority for a local 1% land transfer tax that would pay for these educational facilities. This proposal has received support from a number of local builders and developers, although the outside real estate and big developer lobby still strongly oppose this sustainable alternative tax.

We need to continue our investments in economic development to attract high-wage companies to locate or expand here. While we will continue to encourage all types of commercial enterprises to consider Chatham as their corporate headquarters, our strategy is to become more focused on "green" industries. The day of the old factory bringing in low-wage jobs is long since gone. We need modern thinking and planning for the 21st-century job market and for new energy industries. This includes focusing on our comparative advantages in attracting the type of industry clusters that are more suitable to Chatham. We need good-paying jobs with good benefits for our residents. Those jobs will lift Chatham and its labor force from being solely a bedroom community with high taxes and stuck-in traffic air pollution. Those jobs will encourage shopping locally, attract quality retail stores and bring in much-needed sales tax revenues, additional jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. Those local jobs and industries will also foster improved public schools, recreation and cultural opportunities.

I will continue to support our diverse, local agricultural community by promoting farmland preservation, expanding our local food economy and by supporting the joint food-processing facility in Orange County so our farmers have a place to develop their value-added products. We still have the need for additional revenue options to fund farmland preservation, and I am committed to searching for those options.

I have been a leader in the effort to bring broadband access into all parts of the county and will continue this work. This access will provide a better living environment, better health care, expand on-line educational opportunities and computer literacy among our young people, support countywide entrepreneurship and small business expansion and facilitate telecommuting. Telecommuting, of course, will reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and cut fuel expenditures.

7. In light of the recent Transportation Advisory Board formation and the efforts of Chatham County to create transportation options for its constituents, what are your ideas in increasing mobility while reducing energy and improving air-quality? Does Chatham County need more public transit options and not just buses but walkability and bikability?

As growth increases, we need to provide for greater public-transit opportunities. This is not something that will occur overnight, but we do need to start planning for our future. We have taken an important first step with our investment in the new Pittsboro-to-Chapel Hill commuter bus transit service. Despite the lack of basic marketing by Chapel Hill Transit, who are partners with the county and Pittsboro in this endeavor, our ridership has exceeded the original expectations. Aggressive marketing is needed to make this a sustainable service. The Chatham Transit Network, our local non-profit bus system, has adjusted its schedules to connect with this new service. This allows residents in Siler City to commute to Pittsboro and then on to Chapel Hill.

We need to connect our communities through a public transit system. This is not only an equity issue for those unable to afford or utilize private auto transportation, but it is also an economic development investment. When the economy picks up, there are likely to be numerous non-professional jobs available in Chapel Hill for unemployed Chatham residents, who do not have a car or cannot afford to commute by car on a daily basis. Our fledgling bus system should make it financially feasible for those workers to seek those jobs. Such public transit opportunities will also allow students to attend our community college and derive the benefits of some of our special programs.

We also need to promote alternative means of transportation. This includes walkable and bikeable accommodations for our public facilities and incorporating these provisions in land-use regulations and incentive packages. The sidewalks currently being installed along Highway 15/501 as a result of a stimulus grant is an example of our commitment. We cannot restructure our auto-dependent bedroom commuting communities overnight, but are dedicated to encourage and promote these alternative means of transportation.

8. If the NCDOT approves a freeway in the US 64 corridor what will your goals be in taking action against or for changes that will affect constituents and business owners along the corridor?

This board of Commissioners is on the record as being strongly opposed to NCDOT's plans to make US-64 a limited access route. We do not want to become one of those high-speed, freeway pass-through counties. Businesses along that route would be affected adversely. Homeowners would be negatively affected because of limited access to their communities and resultant decrease in their property values. Traffic would be diverted onto small side roads, which were not designed to handle the traffic. Limited access highways require land-grabbing interchanges that pose potential for toxic runoff through the expansion of highly concentrated impervious surfaces that allow storm water to reach our endangered streams, rivers and Jordon Lake; the quality of these water bodies has a direct impact on the cost of our drinking water. Finally, you do not solve automobile-based traffic-congestion, air-quality, sprawl and climate-change problems by building more roads or higher-capacity roads. If there is a need to move large number of people over great distances and at high speeds, the mode should be public transit, not more asphalt.

Since this is a NCDOT plan, which does not have current funding, I am hopeful the voices of residents and leaders in Chatham and the surrounding areas will be heard.

9. What are you thoughts on broadband access for Chatham County? What are the benefits or lack of? And how would you work to see that access brought to Chatham County?

I am proud to be a leader in working for rural broadband expansion in the state and our county. I am on the board of e-NC Authority, which has the goal of providing statewide broadband access.

Broadband access for all of Chatham County is critical to a thriving community in the 21st century. It provides the necessary means to improve educational possibilities for our children by allowing them to research various school projects and obtain worldwide knowledge. It is indispensible to a good and sustainable economic climate, allowing business and corporations to access needed services and advertise their wares worldwide. As I have said repeatedly, countywide broadband will also promote telecommuting for those whose jobs are based outside the county, will provide wider employment, a better quality of life, a tool for farmers to market their crops, and ultimately will increase opportunities for civic participation.

10. Chatham County has specific infrastructures that must be improved in the next few years. How will you plan for the future as a commissioner (through grants and federal funding) to see that the County Seat of Pittsboro builds needed infrastructures like a new jail and courthouse?

The county has a number of important infrastructure needs. In addition to a new jail and courthouse to address the serious overcrowding of our current facilities, I would list the provision of sewer to Goldston because of their failing septic system, helping Pittsboro expand their sewer capacity and supplying sufficient quality water via a regional water plant on Jordan Lake. We also need to continue to focus on our public schools and community college facilities, to work toward countywide broadband access and to increase recreation facilities, including trails, parks and greenways.

All these facilities should be developed in accordance with our comprehensive plan, i.e., locating facilities within and near our existing towns and communities and agreed-upon new economic development centers. Thus, I have opposed the extension of sewer and water to new rural areas that would enable sprawl residential development and thereby destroy our rural character, risk our quality of life, raise the cost of our drinking water and increase our taxes.

The best way to finance those infrastructure needs is to attract good paying jobs and quality companies to our county. Until the economy recovers and we can expand our tax base, we should do all that we can to find suitable grants and federal funding to help finance necessary infrastructure. We have hired a grant writer who has brought in over $1.5 million dollars already, to augment our funding for various projects. We have prioritized our infrastructure needs and we will continue to utilize all resources to secure funding.

11. What will your goals be as commissioner in redrawing BOC and BOE districts to equal population representatives when the 2010 Census data is available? Given that population growth has occurred in Districts 1 and District 2, what are your concerns in redrawing equal districts that will reflect continued growth?

We have different election district boundaries for the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education, which are confusing to voters and potential candidates. I support having the same district lines for both elected bodies. It is important that any district election boundaries we create be as equal in population as possible, based on the 2010 census.

Because of the conflict that was created by the previous board's lame-duck attempt to rush through changes in our district boundaries and to change our voting method to district-only voting, I support forming, in collaboration with the Board of Education, a countywide re-districting task force of election experts and open-minded citizens, including residents from different areas of the county and different political parties, to do a thorough study of alternative election district configurations, election methods, and board sizes. This task force would make recommendations to the county commissioners and school board. This task force should provide us with the pros and cons of each alternative approach, as well as a summary of the negative and positive experiences in other jurisdictions. The county Board of Commissioners would need to set forth the criteria upon which the task force will be asked to evaluate the alternatives.

In evaluating the various alternatives, it is important that commissioners are able to represent all the citizens of the county and not solely the parochial interests of the residents in the districts where they live. As it stands today, and without yet hearing from this task force, I would most likely favor keeping five residential election districts with candidates voted on county-wide and adding two at-large board seats, to be elected in alternative two-year election cycles. But my mind is open to other alternatives that can be demonstrated to promote countywide representation, collaborative problem-solving and fair decision-making.

12. There has been talk of going to a seven commissioner board with two commissioners being at large. Would you support that decision? If not, why? Do you think that north and east Chatham County needs more representation?

There certainly is more than enough of a workload to support two additional members on the Board of Commissioners. Moreover, this could make possible greater diversity of representation on our board. Again, I am leaning toward increasing to a seven-member board but want to review the results of a re-districting task force before I take a firm stand on this issue.

Please state your general philosophy on what role citizens should play in government decision-making. In general, do you think Chatham residents have enough opportunities to make their voices heard? If so, state some examples. If not, what are your ideas for improving and incorporating citizen input in county government decisions?

As a commissioner, I have fully supported an open and transparent government policy. The government is the citizens' government. Our meetings have become more citizen-friendly, as has our county website. Any citizen can receive all county public notices and the agenda for commissioners' meetings via e-mail and our website. All documents that will form the basis for discussion and deliberations at our county meetings can be accessed and downloaded from our website before the meeting. Although we are experiencing temporary technical difficulties with our system, we have also enabled citizens to listen to delayed audiocasts of our meetings on-line from their residence.

We enacted the first Board of Commissioners Code of Ethics for Chatham County. We follow the open-meetings guidelines and provide minutes of closed meetings to citizens requesting them, except for personnel matters and other pending confidential proceedings. We have increased the number of citizen advisory boards and made them more open and transparent, requiring that they meet the open meetings and public records law requirements and post their minutes, schedules and documents on our website. None of this had been done prior to our coming onto the Board in December 2006. Moreover, we have started a board-by-board revision of the bylaws and selection criteria, to de-politicize appointments, by opening the selection to any applicant and requiring candidates to fill out a board-specific application form. A non-political review committee now makes board recommendations to the county commissioners. Additionally, we are in the process of implementing conflict-of-interest policies, board expectations and operating principles and orientation training for each citizen advisory board.

Of course, opening up government to citizen input is an ongoing process and there is more we want to do, including developing the equipment capability to meet in various parts of the county, to improve our audio and eventually a video meeting capacity with more citizen-friendly and comfortable meeting space in the county seat.

13. Identify a principled stand you would be willing to take even though it cost you popularity points with constituents.

Despite the recession and growing county services demands, I will continue to support critical capital and infrastructure investments needed to continue retaining, growing and attracting good-paying jobs to our county and improving our public schools and community college. I will explore ways to save money and find new revenue sources to make these investments, because these investments are crucial.

I will continue to speak out and vote for policies that address discrimination and structural inequality, regardless of the "noise" of opposition voices from outside agitators and small segments of our community.

I will continue pushing for smart growth, sustainable "green" jobs, promoting green building and energy conservation, sustainable agriculture, preservation and enhancement of our natural resources, social services for our needy residents, public transit, and affordable housing, regardless of pressure from outside developers or attacks by those stuck in some backward ideological outlook, who somehow mistakenly think sustainability, green strategies and smart growth are at odds with economic development.

  • Chatham County Commissioner - District 4

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