Wednesday, January 14. 2009
Well, it looks like my cheers of victory are a little premature. While UNC Chancellor Thorp issued a statement saying the university would not pursue an airport in rural Orange County, he didn't close the door to eventually starting the process again. He said he would not support the repeal of the legislation that gave the university the power to form an airport authority. Everyone is saying that the "process" was flawed, but nobody has backed down from the assertion that the university still needs an airport.
Ok, let me get this straight. The legislation that started this mess explicitly states that in order to create an airport authority, the Board of Governors must "'find that the authority is essential to support the missions of The University of North Carolina" and that "the sole purpose of the authority is to resite Horace Williams Airport." And Chancellor Thorp has already stated what's going to happen to Horace Williams: "While we will keep Horace Williams Airport as long as we can, to realize the full potential of Carolina North, we must close the airport. When that happens, we will still need an airport. It's essential to our AHEC program. But we have an acceptable option – RDU."
That sounds like a pretty tight case. Thorp has said RDU is an "acceptable" replacement for Horace Williams. If there is an "acceptable" replacement for Horace Williams, how could the BOG consider building a new airport "essential"? At ten times the cost, I might add?
I have a few questions I wish local journalists would extract from the University:
[1-16-09 Update: I found in another article on the Thorp's announcement that some AHEC doctors had testified before the legislature that the closing of Horace Williams would "cost them valuable clinic time." So someone did step forward . . . which I suppose is good, though I would still want to grill them if the airport question is reopened. I was told by a well-informed faculty member at UNC that it was most unlikely that an airport would be pursued again during Thorp's tenure as Chancellor, so that probably buys us at least five or ten years.]
Friday, January 9. 2009
As some of you probably know, the University of North Carolina was in the process of trying to establish an airport in rural Orange County . . . and the most likely sites were within two miles of my house. The airport was ostensibly to serve the university's AHEC program for flying doctors to underserved rural areas, but was actually a stealthy attempt of wealthy owners of private planes to have their own convenient airport for coming to Carolina sports events.
I am so happy to say, "was in the process," in the past tense. Today UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp held a press conference to announce that UNC would call off the creation of an airport authority, and instead relocate its AHEC program from Horace Williams Airport to RDU instead.
Phew. That was close.
So what made Thorp change his mind? His official statements were fairly opaque, referencing "a great deal of distrust . . . of the process by which [the airport authority] came to be" and that "it's in the best interest of the University and our community not to form the authority." But I can guess to some other factors:
Whatever the reason, Chancellor Thorp, my family and I extend our heartfelt thanks to you.
Saturday, December 13. 2008
(continued from yesterday)
So, the Board of Orange County Commissioners, using a supposedly fair process, decides to haul the county's trash eleven miles back and forth across two-lane roads just to get it packed up and hauled off. And they're packing it up next to Chapel Hill's drinking water supply. How did we arrive at such a bad decision?
Well, the commissioners were pretty candid about it, when pressed. "Everyone agrees that, were technical considerations the only factor, the Eubanks Road dump site would be the best place to put the waste transfer station," said Commissioner Mike Nelson towards the end of the meeting. "But we also agreed, as a community, that we didn't want to go in that direction." What he was referring to, cautiously, was the fact that community organizers in the Rogers neighborhood adjoining the Eubanks Road dump had pilloried the commissioners for years with accusations of "environmental racism," as the predominantly black neighborhood dealt with the consequences of having to live next to trash. Rather than endure the political pressure of being the oppressive bad guys, the commissioners decided to look for another site.
"Where a site like this belongs is near the interstates," said Commissioner Barry Jacobs. "But Hillsborough immediately threatened to annex anything we tried to put close to them. And believe me, that's not an idle threat."
Ah. Now I see. I started out thinking that this was a fair, objective process that just happened to have landed a trash site near my home. Here I was thinking about what's fair, and what's right. But then I find out that the objectively best possible options were taken off the table from the start – either by individual interests who made the loudest noise, or the brute application of political power, public interest be damned. I'm starting to feel like a schmuck for even thinking about fairness. "Ok, if that's the way this game is played, fine: not in my backyard, dammit." Time to scream and yell, time to call in the lawyers. Did I say democracy was people talking out their issues? Democracy is the art of defending your selfish interests while appearing to serve the good of the whole.
Am I more cynical now? No, not really. I still believe our system is the best, in spite of really sucking. After all the acrimony and impassioned pleas in the public hearing, it's important to remember that everybody went home. There were no fights, no arrests. In other parts of the world, the county office would probably be on fire by now, and people like me would be in jail, or shot by police, or disappeared in the night. Power politics sucks . . . but the alternatives are tyranny, or anarchy, or usually both.
Thursday, December 11. 2008
Tonight I went to a meeting of the Board of Orange County Commissioners (BOCC), since one of my neighbors urged me to attend since they were voting on the waste transfer station. If you've never experienced local politics like this, I would encourage you to do so; it will open your eyes to the nature of politics.
A little background:
Orange County's landfill on Eubanks Road is running out of room. By 2011, the landfill will be out of space and the county's daily 170 tons of trash will have to go someplace else. County officials eventually settled on building a waste transfer station: a place where garbage is packed up, put on to big trucks, and hauled off to someplace else with more land than money. A waste transfer station is not as bad as a dump, but it still means an awful lot of garbage is going to be sitting around nearby (and potentially contaminating ground water), and lots of trucks will be coming and going.
So, the county has been going through a long, drawn-out process of figuring out where to put this waste transfer station. After a number of false starts (something I'll talk about later) the final site the commissions were set to approve was about three miles from where I live. So, I had a personal interest in this particular meeting.
What it was like:
There's a room -- not a very big room, maybe large enough to seat 80 people -- where the commissioners conduct their meetings. The six commissioners (one was absent) sat in an elevated panel, with microphones and name plates in front of them. Not that different from the sort of C-SPAN segments you see for Senate hearings. To either side of the commissioners were a couple broad tables, where the county management staff sat: a clerk who recorded the proceedings, a county manager who seemed to be running the docket, and a lawyer who provided counsel when needed. Some big computer projection screens were up front as well, so staff or visiting parties could present information. A gallery of chairs was set out for the public, and a podium sat in the middle of the chairs from which individuals could address the commissioners.
You could pretty much tell who was who by the way they dressed. The commissioners, being local politicians, had a mostly business-casual look to them: shirts and khakis, some with ties and some without, maybe a tweedy jacket here and there. The staff, being professional bureaucrats, wore the uniform of government: suits that were anything but casual but still managed to look cheap. The lawyers (and no matter what the commissioners were discussing, there was always a lawyer or two involved) wore dark silk suits, which did look expensive and seemed to gleam menacingly. The public -- well, they looked like you and me, mostly: people in jeans, loafers, raincoats, workboots. Everyone in the public gallery looked unhappy and bored -- because, I soon learned, nobody comes to a county commissioners meeting without cause to be unhappy, and anyone who sit through such a meeting is doomed to be bored out their skulls.
The proceedings went something like this:
It went like that from 7:00 pm . . . to 8:00 pm . . . to 9:00 pm . . . to 10:00 pm. Finally, at about a quarter past 10 pm, the waste transfer station issue was brought to the floor.
Local politics, evidently, is an endurance game. I'm glad I came early and got a seat. Half the people there couldn't even sit down the whole time. (to be continued)
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