Name as it appears on the ballot: Jennifer (Jenn) Weaver
Party affiliation: Democratic Party
Occupation & employer: Parent, Mayor of Hillsborough
Years lived in Hillsborough: 14
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the Board of Commissioners do differently or better over the course of your term?
I am running to keep Hillsborough on the path to being a sustainable, equitable community where every person has the opportunity to thrive. I have been a leading voice in Hillsborough on issues of environmental sustainability, equity, and social justice since I first ran for the town board of commissioners in 2013. I was sworn in for my first term as mayor in December 2019 and two months later a global pandemic hit, followed shortly in the wake of George Floyd’s death by the biggest uprising for racial justice the country has seen in many years. I am extremely proud of Hillsborough’s early action in responding to the pandemic, working in concert with the county, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. I also worked with town board colleagues and staff to pass a resolution with multiple actionable items for the Town of Hillsborough to advance racial equity. My ability to listen carefully to members of the community, my colleagues on the town board, and to town staff with the aim of reaching common goals has made my first erm a relatively smooth one despite these major unpredicted events that so profoundly shaped my first term.
My priorities for this next term are: 1. Approve a Comprehensive Sustainability Plan that aligns with our expressed values and needs and leaves Hillsborough poised to move wisely into the future; 2. Stay focused and attentive to the tens of millions of dollars of upgrades and repairs needed in our wastewater/water systems and be sure that we are planning accordingly in line with smart growth principles; 3. Follow through in the next steps for the Mayor’s Task Force on Re-Imagining Public Safety, which will soon be forwarding recommendations to the board of commissioners, town manager, and police chief; 4. Continue to be good partners with our local businesses and artist community to help Hillsborough emerge from the pandemic in as strong a position as possible.
I would like to see us as a board do a better job of staying focused on our highest priorities. At times our good intentions of adding new efforts or initiatives to help our community result in scattered attention and overburdened staff.
2) Given the direction of the Hillsborough town government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I believe things are on the right path. Individual members of our board don’t necessarily agree on every issue before us, but we function well together and have a shared vision for what we are trying to do and where we are trying to go. Our staff is fantastic – skilled and dedicated – and does wonders with the limited resources and capacity we have as a very small town.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
Affordable housing. Like our neighbors and other communities across the state that are located near major job centers where people want to live, Hillsborough’s steeply rising cost of housing is squeezing people out. Hillsborough is too small to have a housing department, so our strategy for many years has been to work with community partners such as Habitat for Humanity or CASA whenever the opportunity arises, and to ask developers to either provide affordable units or payment in lieu. During the pandemic, Hillsborough has formed a great partnership with the county to distribute emergency housing funds. The town designated a portion of our initial covid relief funds to this purpose, plus we were awarded a $600,000 HOPE grant. We would not have had the ability to administer the HOPE funds on our own, so partnering with the county made it possible. This experience provides a possible pathway for continued assistance for housing should Hillsborough decide to provide a permanent funding stream for affordable housing. There is also the issue of housing being too expensive for people who do not qualify for assistance, but are still spending more than a third of their monthly income on housing. The town must continue to wisely use the planning and zoning tools at our disposal to foster different types of housing (not just single family) that also allow people to spend less on transportation and housing.
Wastewater/water system upgrades and repairs. We have recently identified tens of millions of dollars in necessary upgrades and repairs. We are one of the state’s oldest towns, and though we pride ourselves on “taking care of what we’ve got” and keeping up with our infrastructure needs, parts of our system are aging and need attention to have adequate capacity for planned growth without risking sanitary overflows (we are not having these, and do not wish to). The town board is ultimately responsible for the fiscal commitments made to address these needs, but now is the time to allow staff to do the research and study based on their expertise so that they can bring us informed options. (We have already designated a portion of ARPA funds to do a time-sensitive rebuild of filters at the water plant.)
Thoughtfully continuing and completing the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan. This plan should leave Hillsborough poised to head into the next 20-30 years with a clear vision for planning, transportation, climate action (and more) that aligns with our values, fostering an environmentally sustainable and equitable Hillsborough. Throughout this process, we will need to engage in brave conversations as a board, and within and with the community on issues such as housing and car-centric planning that require new approaches to contend with climate change and affordability.
4) What prior experience makes you qualified for and passionate about the Board of Commissioners and its duties? What made you seek this position?
My time serving on a volunteer board, as a town commissioner, and one term as mayor have given me valuable experience to launch into a second term. I am seeking a second term because it feels important to see through the Comprehensive Sustainability planning process that still has a year to go, and to provide some continuity of leadership as we emerge (hopefully) from a very stressful pandemic time.
5) Do you believe the town’s stormwater management plan is effective, or is there a way to make it more efficient and less costly? How can the town decrease the cost of water and sewer services?
I feel very good about the town’s stormwater management plan. We are at the headwaters of the Eno and take that stewardship very seriously. Town staff did an excellent job during the initiation of the stormwater utility in listening to public input to come up with a rate scale that made sense and residents and businesses felt was fair.
I do not know that the town can decrease services. Our rates are high, yes, because we charge what is necessary to operate and maintain the system. Our Water and Sewer Advisory Board began working prior to the pandemic to see if they could figure out a way to configure the rates differently to make it easier on those who are lower income, use less water, or live out of town. That work was disrupted by Covid but we expect they will be picking that up again. During our last budget cycle, the board did approve an adjustment in rates/gallons used as a good faith signal that we hear our water/sewer customers’ pleas for some form of relief.
6) In your opinion, what are the best methods to attract businesses to Hillsborough? How should the town seek to make itself more attractive? What types of industries should it pursue to grow its tax base?
Hillsborough’s economic strength lies in its strong community of independent business owners and entrepreneurs, ranging from small one or two employee outfits to some of the larger employers in the county. This critical mass of local businesses is paired with our strong reputation as an artist community, our long and treasured local history, and our stellar outdoor amenities. The high quality of town services also contributes to a positive environment for local businesses. Put all of these together and you have a place where people want to live and where businesses want to locate. Create the type of place where people want to live, work, and play, and the businesses will be there.
The above approach is all about playing to our strengths. Given our location along the two major interstates of the Triangle, with a future train station on the way, and our proximity to both major hubs for the tech and healthcare industry, and the thriving small farm agriculture ecosystem of northern Orange County, Hillsborough is well poised to further capitalize on spin-off business in each of those sectors.
I see the town board as being responsible for fostering the conditions that create a community where people want to live, work, and play. When that happens, the local economy thrives.
7) Do you agree with the board of commissioners’ recent compromise to update Hillsborough’s noise ordinance? Do you think it needs to change or be revisited?
The noise ordinance update strikes the correct balance between the need of residents to have reasonable hours of quiet for sleeping and the needs of night-oriented businesses to be open for their customers. The update has thus far only impacted the commercial/residential interface in a couple select areas downtown and in West Hillsborough, but if Hillsborough truly blossoms in other locations yearning for more commercial activity at that same interface, the ordinance should work for those residents and businesses as well.
8) As with most places in the Triangle, Hillsborough is grappling with issues related to affordable housing. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
Much of this is answered in my response to Question 3. To elaborate a bit more, I think the town needs to see how things go with the county administering the HOPE grant Hillsborough secured. If all parties feel good about that arrangement, we may engage in a discussion about whether that relationship might continue should Hillsborough provide a steady funding stream. That said, there are no easy go-to places within the budget to pull money from, and any increase in taxes for this purpose must be weighed against the possibility we may price out the very people we are trying to help. Our tax base is small, so getting to economies of scale for things like funding affordable housing is very tricky. We must keep using the tools we have at our disposal, from planning and zoning powers to nonprofit partnerships, as wisely as we can.
Things we are doing right: Encouraging a mix of housing types in recent (over past 15 years) development approvals, being clear about where we would consider development and where we do not (avoids wasting people’s time and money), securing payments in lieu or affordable units as part of development process, fostering a terrific relationship with Habitat for Humanity which has led to numerous homes of varying types adding to our community.
What we could do better: Strengthening relationships with other organizations to increase the portfolio of affordable homes – for ownership and rental.
9) Like most surrounding areas, Hillsborough is currently experiencing growth. What are the best ways for the town to manage this growth and capitalize on it?
The answer here is largely captured in previous responses. I will add that Hillsborough needs to stick to our service boundaries to avoid sprawl, and continue the practice of guiding growth south of the river and railroad tracks to avoid adding to the north/south rush hour backup on Churton Street. A full assessment of wastewater capacity in specific areas and solutions to capacity lost from infiltration and inflow (pending) will place additional boundaries on how and where we grow. Infill development north of the river and railroad will be very important, but again we await more info about the wastewater system.
10) Describe something you think the town should have prioritized differently in the current budget.
The current budget is probably the one I feel best about in the eight budget cycles I have experienced. We funded important items including some that had been delayed, added key positions, and agreed to a two cent tax increase to fund implementation of the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan. As mentioned in previous answers, funding affordable housing is always a question mark and we should seriously consider options moving forward, but for a town that does not have capacity to administer a housing program or department, we must carefully consider whether any additional tax funds are able to be leveraged in a way that effectively addresses the issue we are hoping to address (and without causing more harm).
11) Walkability and recreation are important to the town. What environmental initiatives would you like to see changed or improved?
The town board recently committed to several transportation priorities that will keep us on the path to improved walkability and bikeability for more of our residents and neighborhoods. These are visionary-type commitments to feasibility studies that are what took us down the twenty year path to a ribbon-cutting on Riverwalk.
Ultimately, the North Carolina system of prioritizing and funding transportation needs a massive overhaul. What we see is high demand for increased bike/ped infrastructure by Hillsborough and other localities but the vast, vast majority of funding is designated to highway construction, expansion, and maintenance. This is a devastating approach to transportation when that sector is poised to be the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in the state. It is an untenable approach in the era of climate change. It is also antithetical to being able to truly design equitable communities. I am proud to be serving as Hillsborough’s representative to the DCHC-MPO, which is the leading voice among MPO’s in the state for changing the highway-oriented approach.
I also am a firm proponent of thinking about and talking about bike/ped paths and lanes not just as pleasant amenities for recreation, but as essential infrastructure for mobility.
12) How do you feel Orange County, municipal, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board officials have handled the COVID-19 pandemic? If you don’t think the pandemic was handled well, what should have been done differently?
I feel very proud and pleased with how we have approached the COVID-19 pandemic. We acted early and decisively and there is no doubt in my mind that saved lives and livelihoods. Every life lost from this pandemic, especially post-vaccine, is a tragedy, but our consistently low rates of infection (comparatively) and high rates of vaccinations in all age eligible age groups reflects the good choices made. In addition, the way our economic ecosystem in Hillsborough has survived the pandemic has astounded me. In April of 2020, I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering how in the world our small businesses would survive the stay at home order. I feared many of them would close. I have rarely been so pleased to be so wrong. It has not been easy, and many of them are still struggling, for certain, but between the ingenuity of the business owners and the community’s desire to rally around them and do what they could to keep places open, very, very few places closed their doors for good. We’ve even had new places open. It has by so many measures been a terrible time, especially for the housing insecure, and communities hit unequally hard by the virus, but overall Hillsborough and Orange County have weathered the pandemic about as well as could be hoped for.
13) This summer, there were media reports of Proud Boys congregating in a downtown Hillsborough business. How do you believe the town can best project an image of inclusivity? Has the town done a good job of this in the past? In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
Together, the practice of human bondage, land loss, segregation, and continued systemic racism cast a long shadow over our 260-plus year old town. Yet we have made great strides over the past decade, at least. Previous iterations of the town board managed growth in a way that for a time, had Hillsborough experiencing less housing scarcity and made it more possible for people of all incomes to live and thrive here. In 2015, the town board voted to remove the “Confederate Memorial Library” lettering from the Orange County Museum building. I am proud to have been the leading voice on removal on the town board at the time. In recent years the town has also: included more explicit commitments for racial equity in our values; passed a resolution against HB2; passed a resolution designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day; approved the request of residents to change their streetname from Thomas Ruffin to Lydia Lane; responded to the George Floyd uprising with a resolution including multiple actionable items for the town to address racial equity (including but not limited to joining the Government Alliance on Racial Equity and committing to a community police advisory board); funded and approved flying flags for Pride month for the first time in Hillsborough history; passed a non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBTQ+ residents and employees including in private businesses. Discussions on all kinds of topics that come before the town board involve considerations for the impact any given policy or decision will have on historically marginalized communities. I feel certain there are things I have left off this list, but I think it illustrates the larger point – as a town government, using the tools at our disposal to create a welcoming and inclusive community has been a high priority and continues to be so. No doubt there are things we could do differently or better, but real thought, intent, and action is at play. Local government cannot dictate the patronage of private businesses, or who exercises their right to assembly on public property, but we can say what kind of community we aspire to be and act accordingly.
One area that continues to need focused effort and attention is building an inclusive and diverse leadership pipeline for our advisory boards and board of commissioners. While things have improved over time, our advisory boards are not very representative of our community. There are multiple barriers to people serving in elected office, but certainly one of the traditional ways people gain experience for running to serve in local office is by serving on an advisory board. Not only do these boards help people get to know and understand local issues, but it demystifies a process and role that sometimes people think they need special qualifications for. I have no doubt there are numerous smart and capable people in our community who are not participating in local government. We need to do a better job of bringing them in. Our local government is better when we have the benefit of the insights from people with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.
14) Hillsborough residents (and people across the nation) have expressed concern with the militarization of local police forces. Is this a concern for Hillsborough? What changes, if any, should be made to the Hillsborough police department or to how officers present or conduct themselves?
The Mayor’s Task Force on Re-Imagining Public Safety did receive comment from a resident very concerned with this issue based on a non-emergency interaction they had with Hillsborough police where the officers were in bulletproof vests and carrying all of their weapons.This felt unnecessary and intimidating to them. The task force then discussed this in the formulation of their recommendations (soon to be finalized and forwarded to the board of commissioners, town manager, and police chief). The task force would like to know if there are some calls to which officers can respond without all of their gear on inorder to make the community feel less intimidated.
I agree that this would be ideal, yet I also feel certain a lot more discussion and evaluation needs to go into how or if that can be implemented based on everything from the small size of the Hillsborough Police Department and necessary logistics to how to reconcile the proliferation of guns in our culture with the desire to tone down the gear of police officers. I think all the recommendations made by the task force need to be taken very seriously and with an eye toward creative solutions and “how can” rather than “we can’t” whenever possible, but I would not pretend to have easy answers at this time.
(The Hillsborough PD does not participate in any federal military surplus programs.)
15) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
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