Published: Feb 23, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Feb 22, 2013 09:39 AM
Lost a good friend the other day. And as the hound and I drove across the snowy mountains back to the home state, had a little time to reflect on a remarkable life.
Dick was a lot of things – a research chemist, small town official, avid gardener, Jefferson scholar – and, most importantly for me, the guy my wife called Dad.
He was also my secret weapon in understanding how a small town ticks and how things get done. Like his counterparts here in our community, he was part of a struggle to manage growth and change.
He had an insight into the decision-making process shaped by watching the consequences of his town’s strategies unfold over decades. He also had some insights into what we are going through here in part because he understood the dynamics and because for the past 15 years he read just about everything I ever wrote, including most of those dry, clinical dispatches from council meetings.
We could talk annexations, sewer extensions, zoning and revenues both here and there and just bore the heck out of the rest of the clan.
He understood the political side of things as well. In 1979, after serving on his town’s planning board for a few years he managed to win a council race. But in a state where most of the local races are partisan contests, Dick, a lifelong Democrat in a Republican town, was fighting the tide. He lost another race by 10 votes and it broke his heart.
But he didn’t give up. He served for more than 20 years on the planning board and continued to guide, influence and mentor as best he could.
In 2003, when he was almost 70, Dick got frustrated enough with the way the town was being led to give it another go. He walked his district every evening and tried to knock on 30 or so doors a night. He got beat, of course, but that wasn’t the point. For so many people, he told me later, he was the first person they’d talked to that had any connection to town government.
Last week, sitting around in the living room of the little limestone house where my wife grew up, a bunch of us agreed that if the elections in town had been non-partisan we’d have been saying farewell to a beloved mayor. The headline in the local paper this week said the town had lost “a statesman not a politician.”
As the unofficial curator and sorter of Dick’s stacks of dusty reports, old council meeting packets, memorabilia, letters to the editor and Jefferson quotes, I’m often reminded that the acts of elected officials are just the tip of the iceberg and that democracy only works when people are invested every day and not just Election Day.
So, in the spirit of my departed friend, I’d like to invite those of you sitting on the sidelines for one reason or another to step up. This community needs a diversity of views and a lot of energy to function.
According to their records there are 17 vacancies on advisory boards and commissions in Chapel Hill, 15 in Carrboro and a whopping 75 unfilled seats for Orange County government.
And as we head into another election year keep in mind that it’s the best opportunity to speak directly with the people whose decisions have the most impact on our daily lives. Whether it’s a forum, in a letter to the editor or eye-to-eye in your living room, be prepared to ask hard questions.
Our community is not frozen in time; it’s dynamic. We’re going somewhere, and the direction is up to the people that are involved. Kirk Ross, a former Chapel Hill News reporter, is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public policy enthusiast. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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