Chapel Hill: Opinion

Town must make room for all at the table

As the level of government closest to the people it represents, local government often relies on public participation and community engagement as mechanisms for shaping policy decisions. But do the usual public participation processes engage all residents equitably and produce meaningful information for our elected officials? We don’t think so.

When we talk about community engagement, we often think about who is at the table, but rarely do we think about where that table is located. Traditionally, civic engagement has required citizens to come to meetings held at set times in set locations. Even as officials strive to make these locations accessible and times convenient, there are many who cannot attend – and likely never will be able to. As long as community engagement is about public meetings at set times on set dates, individuals who work non-traditional hours, have multiple jobs, lack transportation, or have caregiver responsibilities will never be able to participate.

Some in our community have suggested that the usual forms of community engagement are fine as is, or that those who show up to meetings must care more about their community, or that those who pay more in taxes are more entitled to be heard, or that residents who have lived here longer have more valued perspectives than those who have lived here for fewer years.

But those who make these assertions ignore the fact that our standard public participation processes already give these residents a significantly more powerful role in government over every other single demographic. Our community’s renters, lower-wealth residents, and communities of color face significant obstacles in showing up to meetings at the usual times, often face the greatest time constraints due to job or family commitments, and frequently have the least access to information about local government. (This very newspaper, the last local paper in southern Orange County, does not deliver to apartment complexes and other multifamily dwellings, where many lower-wealth residents live).

Demographic changes seen in data recently presented by Chapel Hill’s economic development officer, Dwight Bassett, demonstrate how the lack of certain voices in town dialogue affects outcomes in our community. For example, between 1990 and 2011, the number of houses valued at $500,000 or more increased by a whopping 3117 percent. Comparatively, the number of houses valued at $150,000-$199,999 increased by only 107 percent and those valued at $100,000-$149,000 increased by just 32 percent. Over that same period, the number of residents aged 20-44 decreased as a percentage of the population to hit new lows in 2010, and the percentage of African-American residents fell by 3 percent, according to American Community Survey data.

Would these statistics look the same if our elected leaders had listened to and seriously considered the needs and interests of students, renters, lower-wealth residents, and communities of color over this period of time? Are these changes that have made our community more unaffordable and less diverse good for the long-term health of Chapel Hill and Carrboro? We don’t think so.

Would Chapel Hill Transit service have been cut in 2010 if transit-dependent community members like students and lower-wealth residents had been more engaged and included? Would some of the custodians of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have been reduced to contract employees if the voices of lower-wealth community members were clearly heard at school board meetings? Not likely.

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee, in announcing his first campaign, said that “the youth of this town should be treated not as community problems, but as citizens who have legitimate needs, and ideas for meeting these needs.” We believe the same is true of the many constituencies whose voices are often missing from town dialogue and know that the voices that are heard are the ones that shape our priorities.

Considering the needs and interests of all of our community’s residents should be a key consideration of our elected leaders, no matter how much they might pay in taxes or how long they have called our community home.

Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco live in Chapel Hill and are editors of