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Town vs. gown 

The Chapel Hill Town Council race heats up over conflict-of-interest allegations

Dianne Bachman, a candidate for the Chapel Hill Town Council who's also an architect for UNC-Chapel Hill, says she's trying to step away from aspects of the job that might create a conflict if she's elected.

But last month, there was Bachman taking part in a meeting with residents of Mason Farm Road on the southern edge of campus. She was there in her capacity as project manager on a UNC plan to build multi-story apartment buildings in the neighborhood.

Diana Steele, a preschool teacher who lives right next to where the apartments would go, was at the meeting. And she was at a League of Women Voters forum a few weeks later, where she listened to Bachman explain how she has disassociated herself from university projects.

"It's clear that she is still in charge of this project," Steele said. "She contradicted herself big-time. She's treading a very, very thin line, which is going to make her unbelievable to both sides."

Welcome to Chapel Hill politics, where the town's relations with the university are always certain to be an issue at election time. And this year, as 12 candidates vie for four spots on the Town Council, the stakes are larger than ever.

After a summer of intense controversy over three university projects that infuriated historic neighborhoods, the next council will have to handle the biggest project yet, the university's proposal to develop the Horace Williams tract, roughly 1,000 acres smack in the middle of town. That means this council's decisions will be critical to the university's future development.

Bachman, an architect for UNC's facilities planning department, says she's uniquely qualified to work with the university. She touts her ties to UNC as a way to improve communication between the town and the university. But those connections lead others to say she has an insurmountable conflict of interest.

"The difference between Dianne and other members of the council who may be university employees," says former council member Joe Herzenberg, "is that the others are professors, like Dorothy Verkerk. They are not in the position of taking orders from the university administration. Whereas Dianne is a member of the university administration and she does take orders from her superior."

Council business would almost certainly put her in the position of dealing with university planning, he says. "It's really hard to see how they would only put her to work on non-controversial issues."

Citizens need not be worried about a conflict of interest, Bachman says--she won't to be afraid to say no to the university. She says she wants to see "a paradigm shift" in town-gown relations, and she thinks she's the perfect catalyst for that paradigm shift precisely because of the experience that her critics say amounts to a conflict of interest.

What made this summer's town-gown discussions so bitter, she says, was that the university didn't let the community in on its plans until the last stage. "Nobody saw anything until the final presentation by the university to the town. By that time, people became entrenched and it became a battle."

The other problem was that the university reneged on a promise and pushed for the widening of South Columbia Street. That damaged trust between the town and the university, she says. If the university would present its plans earlier and give citizens more venues to express their opinions, Bachman says, that would go a long way toward mending fences.

"If we have open dialogues with these parties, say, twice a year, I think this starts building a feeling of trust, and we have open communication. If we do that, then I don't think that we're going to get in the adversarial situation we had with the chiller plant and the parking decks."

The big fight this year likely will be for two open spots on the council. Council members Bill Strom and Jim Ward have incumbency on their side. Environmental attorney Sally Greene has significant progressive backing. The race for one of the open seats may boil down to two candidates who couldn't be more different: Bachman and neighborhood activist Cam Hill.

Hill has been working on the Horace Williams Citizens Committee and is the town representative on UNC's committee on Carolina North, the university's name for the development planned for the Horace Williams tract. Part of Hill's downtown neighborhood, including his own house, is being eyed by the university as the site of a future parking lot.

Bachman, in her role as a university architect, was project manager for university developments such as the student family housing complex on Mason Farm Road and attended town council meetings to assist senior administrators on technical issues. As a citizen volunteer over the past 12 years, she also helped create the town's Community Design Commission and served on the Appearance Commission, both of which she chaired. If elected, Bachman wouldn't be the only person on council who works for the university. Besides Verkerk, Ward is a curator at the N.C. Botanical Gardens.

The Community Action Network, an established political organization led by former Mayor Rosemary Waldorf, among others, endorsed Bachman, a former board member. The group describes her as "a qualified and intelligent leader with more than 10 years of town service and a balanced approach to the issues facing Chapel Hill--thus our top choice among the challengers."

Hill has the backing of a newly formed grassroots political organization, the Coalition of Neighbors near Campus, led by Gene Pease (whose Gimghoul neighborhood fought the university's plans to put a parking deck and cooling plant nearby). The coalition also backed Strom and Greene.

At a candidate forum hosted by the Community Action Network a few weeks ago, Hill threw shots directly at Bachman. "I'm not going to vote the way my employer or boss wants me to," he said.

"The university would love to have a town council person working for them," Hill said in a recent interview. He isn't convinced that Bachman could avoid conflicts of interest. "Dianne Bachman has drawn a distinction between working on Carolina North and working on other projects, and it doesn't seem to me that that's good enough. Almost every project that the university has interacts with the neighborhoods in some way," he said. "It's unrealistic to believe that she'll be able to handle this conflict of interest."

Bachman says she can. This summer, she arranged with Chancellor James Moeser and Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Nancy Suttenfield to change her job duties so that she could run for council. "It's been in discussions with top administration that they really want me to be able to be very objective. In order to be in a position to be totally objective, then my job description changed and I'm being pulled out of those areas," she said.

"It was definitely collaborative," Bachman said of the process of changing her position. "It's something we've been discussing for a while." Now her role is more administrative. "I will just be more involved in internal committees and things like that, instead of being involved with the town side through my work at the university."

Bachman says she has never been involved in the university's plans for Carolina North, and that she won't be--not from the university side. "I am not going to be involved through the university on zoning issues, modification of the development plan, any of that."

Last spring, the university placed an ad in the newsletter of the North Carolina chapter of the American Institute of Architects to find an architect to review zoning issues for capital improvements and present plans to the town. The contact listed for people interested in that position: Dianne Bachman. The ad led to conflict of interest charges.

Bachman insists that there was no cause for concern. "I was moving into much more of an administrative role at that time," she explained, "supervisory as far as personnel is concerned." In fact, she says, being in that position is "key, because it relieves me of all those [other] types of responsibilities." Several people, including Bachman, made the hiring decision. "I was not the one to make the final decision," she says.

Bachman says she doesn't anticipate any of the university projects she managed coming before the council next term. "If ever a project comes up that I am personally involved in, I will recuse myself," she said. "I don't see those projects on the horizon anytime soon, but I would be honorable about how I would approach that."

But North Carolina law is very strict when it comes to recusal, and it would be difficult for Bachman to do so. According to town attorney Ralph Karpinos, the circumstances under which a council member could recuse him or herself pertain to direct financial interest or official conduct--a lawyer, for instance, faced with a vote that would affect a client at her law firm. "It's almost as if it's oriented toward not allowing elected officials to choose not to vote," he said of the state statute. "For instance, if they want to abstain because they can't make up their minds, or they've got interests on both sides."

One of Bachman's campaign themes is better town-gown communication. "As projects are coming up on the horizon such as Carolina North, we need to have early communication and engagement by the town and the citizens, particularly the neighborhoods that are going to be most affected," she says.

She points to her personal invitation to households around the tract to discuss ways to manage growth through alternative transportation. "We want to preserve the character of that old, established neighborhood," she said.

But Hill says the critical issue for neighborhoods isn't communication venues; it's votes. "This election is about is getting votes on the council so that the town actually has the power to say no to the university," he said recently. "That, in my opinion, is the bottom line. It's about getting people to stand up. Until there's a balance there, town-gown relations are way too much gown and not enough town."

Steele says she doesn't believe Bachman would bring that balance. "She has a lovely smile, and I'm nowhere near trusting what's behind that smile." EndBlock

This story has been corrected since it first appeared.

  • The Chapel Hill Town Council race heats up over conflict-of-interest allegations


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