Chapel Hill organization, CHALT looks to bring change to local politics

Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) was formed in 2015 by a group of citizens who were unhappy with the policies of their town leaders. These individuals believed they would be more effective in expanding their beliefs if they formed a group with a specific platform. Two years later, CHALT has used their political and organizational experience to help elect four new Chapel Hill town council members.

A self-described “grassroots” organization, CHALT is neither a non-profit nor a political action committee. It is organized by 10 people who form the main leadership group. CHALT has about 100 key members who attend regular meetings and about 1400 people who subscribe to their newsletter. CHALT sites their main goals as  “to protect and improve the college town character we value” through fixing traffic problems, holding high standards for new developments, increasing affordable housing, and spending tax money wisely.

Chapel Hill’s 2017 municipal elections were full of first time candidates, especially the Town Council election. As a political organization, CHALT decided to repeat their actions from 2015 and endorse candidates. For the mayoral election, CHALT endorsed Pam Hemminger in 2015 and wanted to see Hemminger continue her work. As for the Town Council, CHALT developed a process to decide which candidates to endorse.

First the leadership board as well as key members developed criteria for an endorsement.

“Does this person have the personal skills to work constructively with colleagues to accomplish these goals?” said CHALT member Julie McClintock. “Do they listen? Do they respect dissenting views? It’s almost like a job interview in a way”
CHALT had encouraged candidates to run, but decided not to endorse anyone until the entire their approval process was played out. CHALT organized a candidate forum and asked an independent third-party facilitator from the Dispute Settlement Center to run it. Candidates for Mayor and Town Council, were able to explain their reasons for running and later were asked several questions about their campaigns and goals. After the candidate forum leaders of CHALT sat down and had a one-on-one interview with each candidate except Maria Palmer who refused.

“I didn’t seek their endorsement because they [CHALT] have misrepresented the will of the people and the work of Council members I have had the privilege and pleasure to serve with,” said Town Council member Maria Palmer. “Julie McClintock has lied or misrepresented the work of the Council. Other leaders of CHALT are also smart and have political experience, so they know how to “play the system” to make things legal, even if they are wrong.”

Using the candidate forum and interviews, a selection committee of about 40 CHALT members sat down to decide the criteria for endorsing a candidate. Again using a third-party facilitator, it was agreed upon that each candidate would get two-thirds the vote in order to be endorsed. Three of the candidates Allen Buansi, Hongbin Gu, and Rachel Schaevitz, were easily endorsed but the fourth candidate, Karen Stegman, was debated significantly.

“In the end, Karen got two-thirds because of her strong work in the schools,” said McClintock. “She’s worked for a lot of nonprofits in the community, she’s worked globally, and she has a reputation for working well with people in the schools.”

Once CHALT made their endorsements, they moved quickly to support their candidates. Focusing on spreading information, CHALT had a town wide canvas, going door-to-door to talk about their candidates. Across the town, flyers were distributed showing their endorsements for Town Council and Mayor.

Although CHALT does have a political action committee, the PAC is not used to give financial support to their candidates. Instead the money donated to CHALT’s PAC is used to fund their needs as an organization such as printing materials. As an organized group, North Carolina campaign finance laws require that as a group, CHALT must file all their political spending with the State Board of Elections. People affiliated with the PAC, such as CHALT treasurer Tom Henkel, cannot sit down and strategize with campaign officials.

As the election results rolled in November 7, CHALT was ecstatic to find all of their endorsed candidates won.

“We did it!” announced CHALT’s website, “You can’t do better than 100 percent!”

Looking forward, CHALT wants to expand upon their goals such as keeping high-tech jobs within Chapel Hill and increasing affordable housing. Currently, CHALT is focusing on supporting local businesses on the brink of closure. After the closing of Twig and Grimball’s in the Village Plaza shopping center, CHALT is looking to prevent the Chelsea Theatre from being the next business to close.

As Chapel Hill continues to balance growing developments with it’s traditional small town feel it seems like CHALT will continue to take an active role in the politics of the town. Whether supporting candidates or encouraging community activism, CHALT is looking to bring serious changes to how Chapel Hill expands.

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