Saturday, November 26, 2011

SWAT, Interlopers, and a Lingering Sense of Bias: Lack of Political Leadership, or Incompetent Governance?

In the sleepy dual township of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, NC, we like to think that our thoughtful brand of progressive leadership provides an homogenous and caring exemplar of efficient local government. Events of the past few months have left me wondering if the reverse is true.

We are not homogenous. Not in our demographic or political make-up. Nor even in our alleged single brand of caring progressivism.

In Carrboro, all we imports (I am from England, by way of Rhode Island, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina) have become so taken with our over-enthusiastic efforts to engineer a social and artistic nirvana, that we quite forget to ask if we have the permission of the many thousands whose families have been living here for generations.

We build what we delightfully call a vibrant commercial center, without noticing that most of those who shop in its centerpiece (Weaver Street Market Co-operative – where I work and advocate) are white and well heeled. As one pithy YouTube observation noted, most of the ethnics are to be found in the kitchens or behind the counters.

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen, good men and women true, believe they are reducing the tax burden for local residents when they attempt to increase the commercial tax base by encouraging higher-rise downtown developments. But they don’t stop to consider what this might do to land and rent values for the surrounding, long-standing shop tenants and residential renters.

We talk of affordable housing. But we mean policies that will allow even more imports to knock $100,000 of their brand-new $300,000 McMansions. We’re not referring to finding ways to allow those imports from further shores to pay a rent that permits them three bedrooms, not just one, for their large families.

We blather about democracy. But we happily appoint our fellows to serve alongside us, rather than engaging in open, even elective processes. We bleed tears (finally) for those immigrants whom we wronged by introducing an unconstitutional Anti-Lingering Ordinance (I opposed it, back in 2006). But we forget to notice the abuse being suffered by our sisters and girlfriends, when they are harassed by some doing the lingering.

Our very own southern slice of heaven, Chapel Hill, prides itself on having moved far away from ugly scenes of segregation. Yet, we don’t seem to realize that the sight of armed Policemen, assaulting a group of residents on Franklin Street, on a Sunday afternoon, rekindles those same ugly memories for some.

What’s more is we don’t appear to want to find out precisely what was going on in the minds of folks, most of whom are neighbors in this town, that would inspire them to initiate such an aggressive confrontation among themselves. Why don’t we want to know? What’s clear is we don’t. At least, not those of us who oppose an independent review of the events surrounding the Yates Garage incident.

But heck, I’m an outsider (only been living in Carrboro for 6 years). What do I know? Well. I know what I see.

I know that I go into bars up and down the main drag in Chapel Hill, a block over from an historic African-American neighborhood, and I wonder why I am not partying alongside black drinkers and black dancers. I ask a friend who has lived here for 30 years, and she tells me, with a knowing wink, that things haven’t changed much – they just got quieter.

Well, until November 13th that is.

I know that I read a detailed account of the firing of two African-Americans from the employ of the Chapel Hill Town Council, in a newspaper that prides itself on its title The Independent, and what I read tells me that this bastion of progressive municipal leadership likely condoned class bias, racial discrimination and retaliation for dissent, while demonstrating, for all to see, the very essence of political indifference.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro like to play a pretend game. They both like to pretend that they do not contain distinct and different communities. Black, white. Rich, poor. University, secular. Moreover, they both like to pretend that there are not distinct and different brands of progressivism – if you don’t agree with the progressive line of the established progressive community, then it simply pretends that you are not progressive at all.

But, how can the powers-that-be in the two communities possibly admit to such distinctions? To do so would undermine the carefully-cultivated notion of a single strand of progressive ‘rightness;’ that same righteousness that validated censorship on the local flagship forum of progressivism, before an editorial panel was created in the past few years.

‘Othering’ may be less pronounced within that forum now (although, please note, this contribution is unlikely to find its way to the front page of that forum). But it still exists in other political arenas, in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill. And it is just as much a form of unprogressive political segregation as any other experienced in these two townships.

So it is that any political candidate who is not a part of the progressive mainstream (or should that be one-stream?) in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill is ‘othered’ on a regular basis by those offering political punditry and endorsements come election time – and on other occasions, too.

A sitting incumbent, who was offering himself for re-election in the recent Chapel Hill Town Council Elections, was listed as an afterthought in endorsements recommended by the aforesaid Independent newspaper, notwithstanding the fact that this same incumbent came close to winning the Mayoralty barely two years ago. He won re-election by the way, ‘independent’ endorsements for others notwithstanding.

My own brother-in-law, a resident of these parts for 20 years, and an acknowledged and active supporter of all causes progressive, was demonized as anti-progressive, when serving as co-host on a community radio chat show we fronted on WCOM a couple of years ago, simply because we had the temerity to ask local established progressive politicians to answer questions we put to them – questions they didn’t like.

We are not homogenous in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. We are different. We are diverse. If we want to put an end to the political fracking now threatening to wreck our two communities, it is incumbent on those who claim to be our progressive leaders to stop merely taking about diversity, and to start demonstrating real diversity in their thinking, and in the way in which they include diverse peoples’ diverse thoughts and concerns in their decision-making.

The latter cannot be achieved, however, unless and until there is demonstrated competence in local governance and up-front leadership among our politicians. Both, in my opinion, are lacking.

When we all get happy-clappy about progressive issues, and dance around the Weaver Street lawn, praising ourselves for patronizing a co-op, rather than Wal-de-Mart, but forgetting to look at the frowns on the faces of our exploited co-op workers, it is just as easy to forget that the first duty of government is to manage itself competently.

More often than not, that comes down to the question: who is in charge – the staff or elected representatives?

I fear that close examination of the Yates Garage incident, the history of Carrboro’s Anti-Lingering Ordinance (here yesterday, gone today, who knows where tomorrow?) and the sacking of the Chapel Hill Sanitation Two may well reveal that years and years of self-congratulatory Kumbiyah have left our twin municipalities firmly in the grip of our municipal employees.

Whose advice were the Carrboro Board of Aldermen listening to when they began their ill-fated journey into the land of constitutional hell, and passed the original Anti-Lingering Ordinance back in 2006? And why did they allow that advice to overcome what they have now demonstrated as being their better political instincts?

Why do progressives on the Chapel Hill Town Council kow-tow to their own staff when they know that injustice has been done in respect of the Chapel Hill Sanitation Two?

And who gave what orders to whom with respect to Yates Garage? What was the established line of command? Was there one? What are the Rules of Engagement? And are the answers to these questions the reason why the local established progressive community are so opposed to the Independent Review Commission proposed by Jim Neal, who has eschewed political back-slapping, in favor of taking a stand for what he believes to be right. As did Town Councilors Sally Greene, Laurin Easthom and Jim Ward, when they supported Jim’s proposal.

All of those who work in whatever capacity in our local government do so, for the most part, because they have a genuine desire to serve and protect their friends and neighbors in the communities in which they live.

I do not criticize them for attempting to provide competence, when they are faced with a dearth of such competence by their elected masters. But the rule is as old as representative government itself. Leaders do not look to their staff to provide them with excuses not to lead. Elected leaders do the leading. Make the decisions. Set the strategy. Take responsibility for the failures. Staff are there, as conscientiously as possible, to offer only advice, and then to carry out the clear and stated wishes of those we elect to lead.

I can form opinions only on what I see. There may always be more to the story than I see, than I read or I am told. With that caveat, and subject to anyone responding differently, I’ll stick my neck out, and say the following:

I see such governing competence from the Mayor of Carrboro. He includes. He considers. He decides. And while allowing room for his fellow Aldermen properly to make up their minds, he doesn’t allow too much dithering. What’s more is, he owns up when he’s been a clown. That’s competence, pure and simple. Whether or not I always agree with the outcome. I see it from a few others. But not enough.

Diversity definitely plays a part in the way I vote. And I’m not talking ethnicity here. First and foremost, I look for people I think will be competent. But sometimes, I’ll just toss that criterion right out the window, and vote for someone simply because they say things that make us think – and I won’t care whether or not they can competently organize their way out of a wet paper bag.

Competence in governance is important. But so too is political courage. And I recognize that the two don’t always reside in the same skin.

We have had ample opportunity to hear our local political leaders say the right thing in the past few months. But, few have stepped up to the plate. They have hidden behind political opportunity or municipal face-saving.

I do not take the same view as Alderman Sammy Slade on the Yates Garage incident. But I didn’t vote for Sammy Slade so that he would agree with me. I voted for him because he doesn’t sit well with crap. He is a walking, talking municipal conscience. He says things that me sit up and take notice. And he didn’t disappoint me on Yates Garage. Even though I think he’s full of it, on this one. That’s political leadership.

I attended the Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting when the Anti-Lingering Ordinance was repealed. I like Joal Broun. Always have. I liked her when she criticized Chapel Hill for allowing the Bank of America Monument … I’m sorry, I misspoke … the now empty and foreclosed Greenbridge Tower Development, because it was going to overshadow the neighboring historic African-American community.

[By the by, isn’t it funny how Joe Riddle gets around, and the Chapel Hill Town Council lets him? But, I digress.]

I liked Joal just as much last Tuesday, when she remonstrated with those progressives (including me) and immigrants who wanted repeal of the Anti-Lingering Ordinance. Not because she didn’t want repeal (she did), but because she wanted to make sure we understood that, once repeal was approved, we would all be responsible for ensuring better behavior from the harassers in the future.

I have not always agreed with Jacquie Gist. But she was pithy in her denunciation of those who do not respect their fellow residents who are women. She flew in the face of the prevailing sentiment that evening. As political leaders do. As also did newly-elected Alderman, Michelle Johnson. And Randee Haven O’Donnell. I just wish we saw it more often.

There are few who are able to demonstrate both competence and political leadership in government. I don’t expect miracles. But I would like to see a healthy and ongoing dose of both from at least some quarter within the pool of those we elect to govern us. There’s enough of ‘em, and we need both competence and political leadership right now, in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill.

What would such leadership look like? I don’t know. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Besides, I’ve not yet been elected to a position where I’m supposed to be the one having the answers. What I do know is that I see what I see, and I say what I see.

What I do know is that it would not look like Aldermen waiting to hear from staff before finding the guts to decide what is right; it would not look like Councilors hiding behind staff when things go wrong; and it would not look like the established progressive community running scared from transparency, because it might have to admit that someone else has a better answer.

And maybe that’s a good place to start. Not assuming that we are the only ones with the answer. Not assuming that only we know best. Asking, before deciding. Especially asking those who are protesting what we are doing. Especially if what we are doing is implementing yet more social engineering. Maybe slowing down on the social engineering. Smart growth, walkability, infilling, whatever. Maybe representing people a little more, and the latest social fad a little less. Maybe … ??

[I have, by the by, also posted this note on OrangePolitics, in the event you are interested in seeing if there is any ongoing discussion. The photo shows students protesting segregation at a sit-in at Brady's Restaurant in Chapel Hill, 1964.]