Candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council and mayor were smitten with affinity for downtown Thursday during the first forum of campaign season.
Sponsored by the Friends of Downtown, a nonprofit advocacy group led by former Town Councilwoman Pat Evans, the debate at the Franklin Hotel focused on parking, panhandling and creating and maintaining local businesses in the Town Center.
On the council side, nine hopefuls attended, including incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward, Councilman Matt Czajkowski, who narrowly lost his run for mayor last cycle, and Donna Bell, an appointed member running her first campaign. Familiar challengers Jason Baker, Augustus Cho and Jon DeHart were joined by fresh faces Laney Dale, Carl Schuler and Lee Storrow. They are vying for four seats.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt engaged in an interesting debate with Tim Sookram in the battle for the mayor’s office.
Read on to hear it straight from the horses (err, candidates) mouths, in the order that they stumped:
Laney Dale admitted he doesn’t know much about downtown parking and never noticed it to be a problem, partly because he rides a motorcycle and party because he only moved here four years ago. Don’t worry, though, he’s got an app for that. Literally.
Dale’s startup companies, Appuware and Appubater, have developed an app set to roll out next month that will detail parking prices and availability.
He came to Chapel Hill from Redondo Beach, Calif.. a community his family called home but from which he traveled for business almost every day, he said.
“My wife said, ‘We don’t know you anymore, we need to move,” he said, adding that they settled quickly on Chapel Hill for schools and arts.
“As an entrepreneur in town, and as a father with three kids, I wanted to give something back to the community and also ensure that I had a say so in the way the community evolved over the next 50 years that I am going to be here,” he said.
Carl Schuler represents Vineyard Square, one of the neighborhoods who will abut the new Inter-Faith Council Community House. He has lived in the Triangle for two decades, and in Chapel Hill for 11 years. He works for the UNC School of Medicine.
He described downtown as “sacrosanct” and said arts and entertainment are key drivers for the district.
Asked about panhandling, he said rules on the book need to be enforced and that he’s concerned that some people are uncomfortable by aggressive pushes for money.
“I don’t offer cash,” he said. “I offer food.”
Storrow spoke with knowledge and confidence that belies the fact that he’s just 22 years old.
“I’m not here to pitch a bio today,” he said. “I’m here today to talk about a vision for Chapel Hill.”
He pitched better transit options, including regional planning and said the town should work with downtown parking lot owners to reduce liability and encourage them to open up unused lots after dark.
When asked about how the town can help encourage speeding motorists to slow down at crosswalks, Storrow replied that most of the drivers at fault were probably students, not those in the audience. Wouldn’t it be great if a young council member, say him, was able to reach out to that population, he said.
Baker was similar to Storrow in 2005 when he ran for office while a UNC student. After seeing the commitment up close, he said he didn’t know if he’d ever stand for office again.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really hard job.”
But now, with his social justice and environmental passions merged with economic development interests derived from working as public relations and outreach coordinator at Weaver Street Market, Baker is back, better than before, he says.
“My mind changed when I had the opportunity to see the town from a new perspective, working on downtown retail and economic development.”
On parking, he applauded efforts to add 181 parking spaces to downtown but said the town needs to “continue working to try to make parking easy to find, available and affordable.”
Augustus Cho believes in Chapel Hill Syndrome, the idea that the place was perfect the day you got here and has been deteriorating ever since.
“There’s not the same energy here as back when I was a UNC student (in the late 70s),” he said. “We had no panhandling then.”
Cho thanked his fellow candidates for running and said he wants to both “create jobs for our community by increasing investments,” and “lower the residential tax burden.”
He also took aim at the town’s Voter-Owned Elections pilot program, which provides funding for qualified candidates and caps spending.
“I consider it a privilege to run for public office,” he said. “The financial burden should not fall on citizens.”
Jon DeHart wanted to let those gathered know he’s a husband, a father, a mortgage lender, an Eagle Scout and not a professional (an amateur) politician.
“I’m not a professional politician. I’m not a professional speaker, but I will be a good listener,” he pledged.
DeHart ran a spirited but unsuccessful campaign in 2009 and is back now with a clearer message.
He wants to focus on affordable housing, environmental and economic sustainability and transparent government.
“I don’t think anyone here is more qualified to lead on those issues.”
He seemed at ease name-dropping downtown police officers and Sutton’s cooks with whom he has become friendly.
Donna Bell, a social worker who resides in historic Northside, is the only candidate who lives downtown.
“I happen to hate my car,” she says, alluding to the need to live nearby.
She was appointed in 2009 to fill the unexpired term left by Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt when he left his council seat for the top job.
She said supporters tell her that she doesn’t take positions. She listens.
“I can’t tell you what I’ll do on every question you ask me, but what I can tell you is I’ll listen to everything you tell me. I’ll do my research and make the best decision I can.”
Bell is opting in to Voter-Owned Elections, and when prompted, she said she favors the program because when meeting with developers and UNC officials she feels comfortable that they can’t buy her vote, they can only offer $20.
“If I had to raise $10,000 to be able to hold this post, I don’t know that I could do it,” she said, adding that she has a two-year-old child and that work keeps her busy. “Honestly, I’m really good at what I do, and I don’t want to deny my community my resources because I can’t afford to take on this position.”
Matt Czajkowski felt at home at the Franklin Hotel. He celebrated his election to town council there in 2007, as a block of incumbents sat stunned in Crook’s Corner when they learned that Cam Hilll was defeated by a scant 60 votes.
“At the time, the Chapel Hill News announced a novice had been elected to Town Council,” he said. “Hopefully you no longer view me as a novice.”
Friends of Downtown leaders supported his bid for mayor two years ago, and his election night party was also at the hotel.
Czajkowski said panhandling has gotten significantly worse in recent years and that he has been pushing his entire term for broader, stricter rules that mirror Asheville and Wilmington.
He called 140 West a mistake, labeling it a missed opportunity to add more parking and said he regrets how the Town Council handled the closing of the Chapel Hill Museum, which would have cost less to keep open than to maintain a vacant space now, he said.
But he noted that he’s helped bring more parking spaces, among other downtown improvements.
“I want to continue that progress,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”
For someone who feels uncomfortable promoting himself during campaigns, Ward seems like he just can’t quit doing it. This marks his fourth race.
“It’s really this forum and others like it that I am going to be relying on for my candidacy,” he said. “You won’t see a lot of yard signs. Look to my last 12 years of service.”
He said parking and safety are issues that aren’t going away, but that he’s pleased to see new wayfinding signs and better parking meters, which now accept credit cards.
As to how to increase safety, he referred to the old line about adding “more eyes on the street” with Greenbridge and 140 West adding new residents and activity that will deter crime.
The mayor’s race
With most of the room cleared, the forum switched from council to mayor level. Incumbent Mark Kleinschmidt pushed for another two-year term as newcomer Tim Sookram, sporting a Red Foxx, “You big dummy” T-shirt, added some levity to the race. The two didn’t have to tango with wolves, though, as habitual, oddball candidate Kevin Wolff was nowhere to be found.
Kleinschmidt’s experience, understanding of the issues and track record make him a candidate who would easily defeat a serious competitor, something he doesn’t have in this race. Still, he thanked Sookram for running and providing “an excuse to have a conversation about the issues the community is facing.”
Even past opponents praised Kleinschmidt’s willingness to include them in town affairs.
“Uniting us is what’s driving my actions both on the council and outside of it. That includes developing relationships with people who I know didn’t support me,” he said. “I refuse to believe that just because people disagreed with me two years ago that we can’t agree today and create a shared vision for our future.”
He said he wants to get broader participation in town government.
“There are 56,000 people in this town, and each of them deserves a community that’s worthy of why they are here, and we need to go where they are,” he said. “I’ve been there.”
Sookram, meanwhile, said he was “frightened and confused” when he moved to town and pined for a more efficient, responsive government.
“We need to do things smarter. I think we are too concerned with making things environmentally sound and leading the country when we aren’t really leading the country that much because nothing is going on here,” he said. “The more red tape, the less happens.”
Asked about the Downtown Partnership, a group of town and UNC officials who put on downtown events and promote the area, Sookfram didn’t know what the group does. He said the town hasn’t done much planning, resulting in a map that “looks like a mess of spaghetti.”
When Sookram mentioned in passing the need to fill vacant storefronts, he was chopped down by a question stating that Chapel Hill has a 95 percent occupancy rate and asking him to name any other community with that success.
“I don’t keep track of that,” he said.
At the end, Chapel Hill/Orange Visitors Bureau Chairman Laurie Palocelli thanked Kleinschmidt for his work and Sookram for his willingness to stand for office and bear the public scrutiny that comes with entering the race.
“It’s was only $5,” he said, noting the filing fee, eliciting chuckles.