Is the Chapel Hill Town Council a Board of Trustees?


By David Adams

Chapel Hill Town Council recently engaged the Keesmaat Group to guide the town’s development via the Group’s “Building Complete Communities” process. Like the form-based code created to develop the Blue Hill area, Building Complete Communities seeks to streamline current and future land use decisions. Public input is cited as a key obstacle to past decision-making—and that includes input from the town’s own advisory boards and commissions.

Lead consultant, Jennifer Keesmaat, has in fact advised council members to act as trustees rather than delegates. Trustees and delegates represent two divergent theories on the roles of representatives in government (first proposed by Edmund Burke). A trustee makes decisions based on personal judgment (“I was elected, so I know best”), while a delegate makes decisions based on feedback from constituents.

The controversy surrounding the American Legion property is a case in point. When the resolution to purchase the property came before Council, Councilman Michael Parker proposed a last-minute, “surprise” amendment to the resolution to clarify that the council did not intend for the entire property to be used as a park (see Hodge, B,, 12/7/16).

This amendment is contrary to the town’s 2013 Comprehensive Parks Plan and states that some of the property be sold to recoup the cost and the remainder serve a mix of purposes, both public and private. Fast forward to this year when Mr. Parker petitioned the Council to again sell some portion of the land, drain the pond and build housing on the site while somehow retaining a “world class” park.

Now the mayor has created a Legion subcommittee composed of the mayor, Council Members Parker, Stegman and Ryan. Of note, Councilman Adam Searing, the lone community park advocate on the Council, was excluded. This committee will make a decision for a Council vote in December with little time for public engagement. Not surprisingly, of the options under consideration, none would combine Ephesus Park with the Legion property to create a true community park as advised by the Comprehensive Parks Plan, the American Legion Task Force (2017) and the Parks, Greenways and Recreation Commission (2019). Not to mention the current grassroots citizen petition to create such a park with over 900 signatures to date and counting.

In short, the Chapel Hill Town Council, under political cover provided by an expensive consultant, has become a Board of Trustees that knows best what the town needs and is planning to fast-track other important decisions without advisory board review and little to no public input.

True representative government in Chapel Hill needs delegates not trustees.

David Adams is an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Duke University and 38-year resident of Chapel Hill. He writes here as a member of Legion Community Park Working Group, a coalition of individuals and groups advocating for the property to be used solely as a park .



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