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Deja vu all over again

By Wallace Kaufman
Posted Monday, March 22, 2004

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Reading Jeff Starkweather's alarums and description of the Coalition, I had a strong twinge of nostalgia. As always the extraordinary citizens of Chatham County are organizing on behalf of the ordinary citizens, and one wonders why it is these ordinary citizens never seem to be able to organize for themselves. In my several decades in Chatham I came to believe that the county was, in fact, populated by largely by extraordinary citizens, and I take a bit of umbrage at the suggestion that the majority are ordinary. (One even wonders if the majority of citizens might also take umbrage at being called ordinary.) Certainly the organizers of the coalition, Jeff Starkweather, Judy Hogan and Efraim Ramirez qualify as extraordinary, except perhaps in their (or Jeff's reference to others as ordinary.)

What does seem to be ordinary for the many boards of commissioners I have known since the 1960s is Jeff's description of the current board: "Our current county officials have made a mockery of citizen participation. They have continually ignored citizen advisory boards, treated expert citizen input with disdain." Deja vue all over again, as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.

It even seems that each new land use plan takes longer and longer to write, the current one at five years holds the record and its winding path spans at least a couple of boards of commissioners of quite different political compositions. Perhaps it is irrelevant since past boards have either largely ignored the land use plans or interpreted their fuzzy language to suit the mood of the board. Through it all, Chatham has continued on its path of suburbanization, ever more burdensome taxation, and the same
political divisions No matter who the Commissioners are the rhetoric has been the same..

From the first land use plan in 1968 to the announcement of the Coalition this week the rallying cry for those of all political stripes has been "well paying jobs" and "responsive government." Since the mid 60s Chatham has always been at a "critical juncture in the county's history". The creation of Jordan Lake in the 50s and 60s was critical. The creation of Fearrington Farm was critical. Building Shearon Harriss was critical. Governor's Club was critical. The by-pass around Pittsboro was critical. Carey annexing in Chatham was critical. In truth, perhaps they were all critical.

The few times the Commissioners or one of its members (same for Board of Education) committed to adopting or even exploring a specific policy that could not be fudged, the proposal got no farther than promises or talk. Take for example, a proposal in the 70s by Wade Barber, Sr. (our judge's father) that the county only extend water and sewer that would be paid for by users. Commissioners, liberal and conservative alike, have extended water everywhere and the inevitable development has followed the subsidy.

Take for example, a proposal in the 1980s by Chatham 2000 organization (now defunct) that new industry be encouraged only if it paid above average wages and produced no net decrease in air and water quality. Wonderful, said several commissioners. And that's all they said.

Take for example, the proposal once embraced by one of Chatham's most "progressive" commissioners (recently replaced by a development oriented commissioner), that the county refrain from subsidizing or supporting state subsidies for businesses or industries.

Take for example, a proposal praised by another "progressive" commissioner that the county should hold tax revenue increases to no more than the rate of population growth.

In such circumstances it is quite ordinary for a few people to hope to create the kind of extraordinary action group that will finallly make an extraordinary change in political reality. But haven't we seen this
before-- a few extraordinary folk propose that they and friends shall represent and rouse the ordinary folk who make up Chatham County?

Creating an extraordinary future for Chatham County can only take place when such ordinary and divisive rhetoric disappears.

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