A Matter of Process: Greenbridge and Council’s Devolving Standard of Public Review

I haven’t been reticent in my criticism of the process Council used recently to manage the approvals for Greenbridge, the environmental uber-project and possible end of the traditional Northside neighborhood. Adopting a new zone, TC-3, developed and refined during the months bridging Thanksgiving to Christmas, within the context of Greenbridge’s approval ill-served our citizens.

Claims, most notably by Bill Strom, that Greenbridge’s TC-3 is somehow unique (video coming soon) and folks won’t have to worry about another use will be tested all too soon.

Most of the Council members are aware of the public discussion and scrutiny of the 90′ limit and 1.97 density ratio. Unfortunately, the minimal opportunity citizens had to respond within the public hearing process didn’t reflect those hard learned lessons. Only two citizens spent any of their 3 minutes of public comment suggesting the impropriety of making a major change to Downtown’s future geography within the narrow context of Greenbridge. Doubling the density, raising the height limits by %30, with the SUP establishing a height precedent fully %50 above the previous 90′ will carry serious consequences for “human scale” Chapel Hill. Now that door has been opened, does anyone truly believe developers on our doorstep will not press for even more consequential change?

I recall Sally Greene, prior to being elected to Council, making numerous appearances before Council on OI-4 (the most probable zone for Carolina North) counseling not only greater public outreach but public education. She argued process, process, process and was obviously aware that a significant change in public policy demands a significant effort to build understanding.

Yes, the effort to build understanding can also build opposition. One might argue that the best “political” strategy “playing the approval game” is to keep your head down, limit public understanding and bull on through. Good strategy for a “player”, maybe, but terrible public policy.

Tonight, the Chapel Hill News’ breaks the story, on their ‘blog OrangeChat, that the son of one of our Council members sought to represent the developer of Greenbridge.

Sometime last fall, the son of Town Council member Bill Thorpe approached the developers of the Greenbridge condominium towers and offered to work as their public relations consultant.

Thorpe said his son, William Thorpe Jr., is a grown man and did not consult him before making the pitch.

From today’s followup in the N&O

Thorpe said his son, William Thorpe Jr., is a grown man and did not consult him before approaching the developers. Thorpe said he only heard rumors that his son had asked for a $40,000 consulting fee.

“He was trying to get a contract with them, but I haven’t done anything with them,” Thorpe Sr. said this week. “It had nothing to do with me.”

Yes, we’ve seen our share of national problems with relatives representing interests before their elective relations but certainly this doesn’t rise to that level. Bill spoke of his son during the 2005 election, I don’t recall his saying he did PR. In any case, Bill made it clear his involvement was nothing to be troubled by: “I ain’t got nothing to hide,” Thorpe said this week. “I can tell you right now, I have not asked anybody for no money.”

[UPDATE] GeorgeC over on OPsays the Mayor and Attorney reviewed this, not the Council, yet the article and post both say “Foy said the council did not pursue the matter further…” Now, was that the Mayor using the royal “We” or did the Council know? I’ll ask either the reporter or a Council member next time I see them. If this was the Mayor acting as the lone “decider”, well, that’s a bit troubling in itself.

The Mayor and Council, it appears, reviewed the issue on discovering it:

Mayor Kevin Foy learned of the situation before a public hearing on the downtown condo project Jan. 17 and asked Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos for advice.

Foy said the council did not pursue the matter further because Thorpe Sr. was not personally involved. Foy said he believed that his colleague’s hands were clean in the matter.

That January 17th meeting was a key public hearing for Greenbridge.

This is most troubling. I can accept Bill Thorpe’s assertions about his son’s involvement. I can appreciate Council and (?) the Mayor responding immediately with a legal consultation and review.

What I can’t understand, and will not accept, is the absence of public disclosure.

Yes, the appearance of impropriety can sting. Trying to mitigate the possible embarrassment and pain of a friend and colleague is laudable. But these are public servants. Many of these Council members, one time or another, during elections or otherwise, have pledged to increase openness and transparency within our local governance. They (?) The mayor had an obligation to reveal, for Bill’s sake, in as tactful a fashion as possible, this story and not leave it to the 4th estate (Chapel Hill News)

The process of openness and transparency must be consistent to be reliable. The public trust demands and deserves disclosure.

And yet another lapse in judgment related to a development deal.


9 responses to “A Matter of Process: Greenbridge and Council’s Devolving Standard of Public Review”

  1. Fred Black Avatar
    Fred Black

    Will, I’m having trouble following your thinking on this. Unless and until the developer hired a relative of a council member, what needs to be disclosed? And IF a relative was hired, what do the conflict of interest laws say would happen when votes are taken?

    I think your argument is a real overreaction.

  2. Administrator Avatar

    The measure of your commitment to these principles isn’t when you deal with a development universally hated or a political enemy. That’s “easy”. The measure of your commitment is when it’s a project you love (and maybe are hip deep in developing) or a dear friend and colleague.

    This was a “cautionary tale” that the Council, if they were involved, or the Mayor, if he was the lone “decider”, could’ve used to clearly underline their commitment to process.

    Bill says while he didn’t know the particulars but “… he only heard rumors that his son had asked for a $40,000 consulting fee.” OK. What did he do with these rumors? Were any other Council members privy to this information? Did you hear these “rumors” Fred?

    This was the mildest of events, yet, as I tried to say in my post, it was a critical test of Council’s commitment.

    I think, for instance, that some on the Council, including the Mayor, are way too cozy with RAM Development’s Casey Cummings. That said, I’ve never thought that their “coziness” slipped over the edge of propriety. A great part of that confidence is knowing the folks involved, another part was the, it appears, mistaken belief that there was a structured process for dealing with these, even if apparent, conflicts of interest.

    Again, if the Mayor, as much as I like and trust him, is the lone “decider”, well, that’s a process our Town can do without…

  3. Fred Black Avatar
    Fred Black

    Will, you are trying to connect dots that don’t deserve the time and energy that you want to devote to the task. IF there was a hiring, THEN there would be something to talk about, but just asking somebody for a contract is not the Town’s and its citizens business until there is a hiring.

    I guess I don’t see why having the information that a person sought employment matters until employment happens, especially if a council member is not personally doing the asking.

  4. Administrator Avatar

    Quite true Fred. He didn’t get the contract – no harm, no foul, right?

    Let me introduce a HYPOTHETICAL based on this situation.

    What if Bill’s vote had been the deciding one on Greenbridge – and their approvals went the other way? Would we want to open the door to an accusation of payback for not hiring his son?

    It is not just the wider public’s good that is served by following an open process.

  5. Fred Black Avatar
    Fred Black

    Let me introduce a HYPOTHETICAL based on this situation.

    What if the next door neighbor or any close friend tried to get a job with them?

    Many things could influence a vote for or against something, right? It doesn’t just have to be a close relative. Where do you desire to draw a line UNTIL someone is in fact hired? Should everyone who tries to get a job be checked for any possible ties to anyone who gets to vote?

    At the end of the day, we rely on the honesty and integrity of those we have given a public trust. Otherwise, we would spend all of our time ensuring there are no POTENTIAL conflicts.

  6. WillR Avatar

    Fred, you’re right, at the end of the day all we can do is trust the judgment of our elected officials. In a small city like Chapel Hill, we don’t need them burdened with worries that every association, no matter how trivial, between their personal life and public business needs a public airing.

    We know folks serving now that have relationships with folks doing business before and with the Town. I guess you expect me to be consistent in my quest to plumb the depths of the trivial and mundane. Why not blather on about those connections? My assumption was that the dramatic nature of the changes Greenbridge brought Downtown – the scale and impact of the project itself – the precedent of TC-3 – raised it above the mundane.

    A poor assessment on my part? GeorgeC and TerriB seem to concur with your opinion – a pretty good indication how far off-base my concern for process and precedent is…

  7. Terri Avatar

    I didn’t say a concern for process was off-base. But in this instance, where the adult son of an elected official applied for a job and was turned down, I think the mayor made a good judgment call. What purpose would it have served, other than embarassing Bill’s son, to make an issue of it? Now if he had been hired, then your concerns would be justified IMHO. But I also think that if he had been hired, that fact would have been made public and there would have been a consultation about whether or not Bill should have recused himself.

  8. Administrator Avatar

    Fred and Terri, you’re right, the only purpose it would serve is to clear up what Bill called “the rumors”. I thought that since Bill seemed to be saying it was already swirling around the community, a public clarification was necessary. On re-reading my original post I realize that I wasn’t very clear on that point. Of course, one could argue that the months old rehash in the CHN is more embarrassing than a quick acknowledgment and moving on.

    Now, what about the process? Is it a matter that the attorney and Mayor always make the call? Was Council informed? It’s the difference between “the decider” and the People’s reps – in this case the Council as a whole – reviewing the situation.

    My post was about “process” and how it seems that after some great success at opening it up it is now getting short-changed.

  9. Terri Avatar

    What I am disagreeing with you about Will is your criticism of the process based on this one single incident in which you disagree with the mayor’s judgment. Process by definition develops across multiple iterations. So the question back to you is: Was this a single incident or a trend?

    You say the process had some great succes but is now getting short-changed. What are other examples that led to your conclusion that it is being short-changed?

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