Board of County Commissioners

While this is only the Democratic primary election, the race for the Board of County Commissioners is likely to be decided May 2. Seven Democrats are vying for three seats. The top three will go up against Republican candidate Jamie Daniel in November, but Daniel and other Republicans have not fared well in years past.

We have found it impossible to choose among four very strong candidates and feel each of them deserves our endorsement. So we present all of our recommendations–you make the choice.

Incumbents Barry Jacobs and Alice Gordon have worked hard and have a lot to show for their time on the board, including environmental initiatives such as the Lands Legacy Program and the Schools Adequate Public Facilities ordinance. Both are strong progressive voices on social issues who have worked on regional solutions to transportation and growth.

Jacobs, who is a sports columnist for the Independent, has been on the board for eight years. He is a leader on both environmental issues and economic development. One of only two commissioners living in the rural part of the county, he has shown a commitment to residents there who face rising property taxes and often feel their needs are neglected. Jacobs has worked on practical solutions to keep area farmers in business, and has reached out to address financial concerns in the minority community of Fairview in northern Hillsborough. Jacobs has also worked to reduce solid waste, create more county libraries, and provide facilities and financial assistance to senior citizens. He has pushed the county government to increase pay to its lowest paid workers and to address the affordable housing crisis. And he has worked with the governments of Orange County townships and neighboring counties to address regional transportation and planning issues. His advocacy for nodes of development along the county’s rural buffer has raised concerns among some area leaders who believe that running water and sewer lines to any parts of the buffer will open the door to development. But given his strong environmental record and the current balance of the board toward protecting the buffer, this is not a major cause for concern.

In her 16 years on the board, Gordon has helped to craft many of the county’s strong environmental policies and made environmental issues a central concern of county government. She is currently working to fund and implement groundwater protections, an urgent concern for the future of Orange County (other Triangle counties, take note!). She has worked on region-wide transportation planning with the Triangle Transit Authority and successfully worked for a Hillsborough-Chapel Hill bus route. She has also supported a county resolution to end the war in Iraq. Her advocacy for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School District’s budget has earned her support among parents in that district, but others feel it has contributed to county budget problems and shown a lack of concern for the rest of the county’s residents.

Two dynamic challengers, both well respected community leaders, also have our support.

Mike Nelson, whose 10 years as mayor of Carrboro ended in November, is a strong progressive with a demonstrated record of achievement in environmental protection, transportation and economic development. Nelson has the experience of running the complex engine of local government–from budgets to planning to collaboration between government bodies. He’s also one of the first openly gay elected officials in the state, one of several ways he’s shown courage in the face of controversy. He has made school funding equity his top priority if elected, followed by environmental protection and social justice issues. He promises to introduce a comprehensive energy plan for the county. He also has concrete ideas for jumpstarting the economy, including the creation of business incubators through UNC and revamping the county’s business loan fund, a program that has had success in Carrboro under his leadership. Nelson is a strong advocate for social justice, which to him means tackling the achievement gap in both school districts, providing a technological infrastructure and protecting the human rights of all residents.

Fred Battle is a civil rights leader and social activist born and bred in Chapel Hill. As leader of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, Battle has mentored many progressive political leaders. He is committed to addressing the diversity crisis facing the county, Chapel Hill and Carrboro in particular, where African-American, elderly and other low-to-middle-income residents have been pushed out of their homes through climbing property taxes and the real estate market. Among Battle’s goals is the passage of a homestead exemption act for property taxes for residents above the age of 70 who’ve lived in the county 30 years or more. He also wants to address the achievement gap in the county’s two school districts–Battle was a CHCCS school board member from 1985 to 1989, but he recognizes that it’s the commissioners who have oversight over funding and leverage over certain policies. While his years working for the Chapel Hill’s parks and recreation department gave him experience with public budgets and planning issues, it would take time for Battle to get up to speed on the diverse nuts-and-bolts issues that come before the board. But there is no doubt he would be a steadfast advocate for the county’s underrepresented citizens.

Artie L. Franklin has run a serious and admirable campaign. A Libertarian until that party lost its state charter, Franklin has run and lost for commissioner before. He’s been an active citizen, attending public meetings (nearly every BOCC meeting this year) and getting to know the people and issues of the county. He’s worked hard and brought valuable points of view to the discussion.

Betty Tom Phelps Davidson teaches biotechnology at area community colleges. She and her husband operate a historic country inn in the rural part of the county, giving her insight into the concerns of small business owners coping with changes in the agricultural economy and property taxes. Davidson served only half a term on the Orange County School Board until resigning in 2004, citing dissatisfaction with the handling of her son’s complaints that he was bullied at school. Davidson is concerned about social justice and recognizes the county’s pressing issues.

Robin Cutson ran for Chapel Hill Town Council last year on a platform of fiscal reform. Lately she’s been active on the issue of biological weapons research at area universities. Cutson is clearly dedicated to advocacy, but she has yet to develop communication skills necessary for public life.

Orange County School Board

Whoever wins this race, Orange County’s Board of Education will be full of new faces. There are no incumbents running for the four open seats. Dolores Simpson, Brenda Stephens, Libbie Hough and Randy Copeland all cite personal reasons for giving up their positions.

The board has had a reputation for being contentious in recent years. That has slowly begun to change, and we have reason to hope that change will continue. This year’s candidates have already developed a collegial rapport, and their presentations of the issues so far lack any partisanship.

The candidates we endorse share a conviction that Orange County Schools currently face funding inequities that translate into fewer educational resources and opportunities compared to Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. The candidates also share an awareness of the need to make a strong, unified case for its budget to the Board of County Commissioners, the only body that ultimately has the power to address funding equity head on.

We enthusiastically endorse Ted Triebel, a professor of public policy at Duke University who’s led a remarkable life. A former Navy fighter pilot shot down in Vietnam, Triebel spent a year in a prison camp in Hanoi. He went on to head the U.S. Naval Academy (where he oversaw a $45 million annual budget) and Navy ROTCs at Duke, UNC and NCSU. Triebel has the support of many progressives in the community, who say he is a man of integrity, ethics and sensitivity to the views of others. Triebel served on the Orange County planning board for six years and now chairs the Board of Adjustment. All of this translates into unrivaled qualifications to manage and lobby for the schools’ budget, site schools, and tackle other challenges the board will face. The district will be lucky to have him.

Debbie Piscitelli has already logged many hours working on Orange County School issues. A pharmacist and medical writer, Piscitelli has volunteered in the classroom, tutored math, raised funds and led the PTA at Pathways Elementary School. She has also participated in district-level committees on student reassignment and strategic planning, and reached out to the principal of each school. She emphasizes the need to communicate with parents, especially minority parents, and to address the achievement gap. Her priorities are to balance opportunities within the district, such as teaching science for a full year at both middle schools and having teachers specializing in academically gifted programs available to every school.

Anne Medenblik is a former high school teacher with a degree in business education. In her eight years volunteering with Orange County Schools, she has been a math tutor, Girl Scout troop leader and PTA leader (and outside OCS, a Sunday school teacher). She has also served on the district’s middle school task force and safety health advisory committee. Her accounting and business management skills will be of particular benefit to the board.

Susan Hallman is another prolific volunteer with nine years of experience working in the schools. She has tutored children and adults through the Orange County Literacy Council, has a master’s degree in education, and is a certified counselor. She has set academic rigor, the achievement gap and the dropout rate as top priority issues to address. Like Piscitelli and Medenblik, she is an involved parent who has made herself aware and involved in the issues affecting all of the children in the district.

The other candidate in the race, Tony McKnight, has said he wants to lower the suspension rate and raise the graduation rate, urgent issues affecting those least well served in the district. He did not answer our questionnaire, so we know little else about him. If McKnight is not elected, the board will go from having two African-American members (Stephens and Simpson) to having none, which would be unfortunate.

Editor’s Note: Staff writer Jennifer Strom, whose husband, Bill Strom, is on the Chapel Hill Town Council, did not participate in any endorsements involving Orange County.

Superior Court Judge, District 15-B (Orange and Chatham Counties)

A field of six strong candidates vies for the two seats in this nonpartisan race.

We endorse one of the incumbents, Carl R. Fox, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Easley in March 2005. Fox was an elected district attorney for the town of Chapel Hill for 20 years, one of the first African-American district attorneys in the state (Easley is inclined to appoint criminal prosecutors to be judges). He has a reputation for fairness and even temperament, and in a little more than a year on the court he has demonstrated as much. Fox recognizes the need to treat those who appear before the court with dignity. He believes in alternative forms of sentencing when appropriate, and he keeps the judicial calendar moving along at a healthy pace. Fox is doing a fine job and we hope to see him stay on the bench.

Among the challengers, we endorse Adam Stein. Law students in North Carolina are already familiar with Stein’s work as a civil rights lawyer. In 1967 he co-founded the first integrated law firm in the state. He has worked on more than 50 school desegregation cases, and he argued three different civil rights cases before the United State Supreme Court (and won). But his career has always been in North Carolina–he’s appeared in the courtrooms of more than half of the counties in the state and has worked to improve the quality of public defense for indigent clients.

If elected, Stein will have to retire less than three years into his eight-year term because of the state’s mandatory retirement age of 72. But he could continue to serve as a recalled Superior Court Judge throughout the rest of that term, which means both that the governor would appoint his successor and that Orange and Chatham counties would have a third judge on hand. Stein’s unparalleled experience would have made him an excellent N.C. Supreme Court judge; it puts him head and shoulders above any other candidate for this seat. (Full disclosure: He is also a longtime shareholder in the parent company of the Independent Weekly.)

Charles (Chuck) Anderson, an elected district court judge for the past 10 years, has more experience as a judge than any other candidate and would be excellent in Superior Court. Well respected for his fairness and decency with a particularly good reputation in cases involving child welfare and domestic violence, Anderson has actively improved the administration of justice in both criminal and civil cases. Noticing problems with child custody cases, for instance, he helped create the Guardian Ad Litem and Parent Coordinator Programs to better protect the best interests of children. Luckily, if he loses this race, he will stay on the District Court. We hope whoever is governor in 2009 strongly considers appointing Anderson to Superior Court.

The other incumbent, Allen Baddour, was appointed by Easley in February. While Baddour is a fine judge, his appointment at the age of 34 is seen by many as political–he comes from a family of successful North Carolina politicians. Baddour is smart and conscientious, with experience as both a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor. We believe he has an excellent legal career ahead of him and he would make a very good District Court judge.

Kenneth B. Oettinger is an attorney in private practice with 35 years of experience in both civil and criminal cases. He has argued before the N.C. Supreme and Appellate Courts and before Superior Courts in 30 counties across the state.

Michael W. Patrick is also an attorney in private practice, in both civil and criminal cases. He has defended indigent clients throughout his 25-year career, and he has served on the boards of various state legal associations to better educate the public about legal rights and the court system.