Maurice Jones was appointed as Chapel Hill's newest town manager in July 2017 and began in August. Prior to joining the Town of Chapel Hill staff, he was the town manager of Charlottesville, Va., notably during the protests of August 2017.
The Daily Tar Heel sat down with him on Monday for the first time to talk to him about his transition and goals for the Town.
The Daily Tar Heel: How has it been transitioning to another university town? How does it compare to Charlottesville?
Maurice Jones: You know, very similar, many more similarities than differences, quite frankly. You know, there are a lot of folks who care deeply about this community. We’ve had our fair share of protests over the course of the last six months, and so getting a chance to watch folks interact and prepare for that is very similar to some of the things we did in Charlottesville, as well, as we prepared for events. I really enjoy college towns. It’s one of the reasons I was attracted to this job in the first place, because of the energy that you have in college towns, and the focus that you have on really important topics and issues. We certainly have that here, whether it's issues related to climate change or issues related to racial justice, alternative transportation.
DTH: What are some of your visions for the future of Chapel Hill and the other issues in general?
MJ: Obviously alternative transportation is really important for us. There’s been a lot of discussion recently over Bus Rapid Transit, especially on this corridor here on 86 and Martin Luther King Boulevard. The Council has had some discussions recently about what more we could do when it comes to protecting our environment and encouraging others to do that within the town. We’re in the early phases of developing a climate action plan that we hope to develop not only as a town but also regionally.
DTH: In the announcement that was first made saying you got appointed to the position, Mayor Pam Hemminger specifically cited your experience with the Charlottesville protests that happened in 2017 as a reason why they were excited to bring you on. Are you approaching the events around Silent Sam differently than how you approached the Charlottesville protests, or is it more informing how you’re behaving?
MJ: I would say we’ve approached it a little bit differently because it’s not on the same scale as what we saw in August of 2017. I mean with that, there were thousands of people who were in our streets in Charlottesville and many of whom were not there for good reasons, but they wanted to engage in an activity in which folks would become violent, physical with another. We haven’t seen that nearly as much here, a much smaller scale with the protests, like on Saturday, there were about 60 people altogether who were involved, and they just came to voice their opinions.
And so, even though it got tense at times, there didn’t seem the intention that they were there to hurt anybody else. So they’re two kind of different experiences, but there are things we can take from Charlottesville and other places around the country that have had this type of violent interactions between some of these groups. We can take that and learn from that here in Chapel Hill as we’re applying it to preparing for these types of events, but thankfully we’ve kind of known going in that these weren’t going to be violent events.
DTH: So you mentioned taking your experience from Charlottesville and trying to learn from that. Is there anything specific you’re trying to apply in Chapel Hill?
MJ: I think there are a couple things that are really important in situations like that. One is to make sure you’re communicating with your community about what you expect going into certain weekends, if you’re having a protest, being able to communicate what you expect to happen on the ground, generally. Making sure people understand a lot of preparation is taking place to ensure there’s a safe environment for people to gather and speak and state their opinion. Also making sure you have the public safety resources in place to address, one the preparation side, and two making sure you’re keeping a close eye on folks so tensions don’t rise to the point that you’re starting to see physical activities taking place, violent activities taking place.
DTH: We’ve been talking a lot about the Town’s relationship with the University and how your communication has been. Are you satisfied with how it’s been going in terms of the protests around Silent Sam?
MJ: I think there’s been excellent communication between the Town and the University when it comes to preparing for events, during events and afterward having a discussion on how they went and how we can improve upon our response. Especially with public safety folks, we work very closely together. So even though it’s a different situation, these protests, they’ve gone through this quite a bit over the course of the last year and a half, so it’s not the first time they’ve had to deal with that.
DTH: Have you discussed anything specific in the discussions you have about how to improve responses to the protests?
MJ: I mean I think just like how I was saying before, just making sure we’re communicating not only with our public but making sure we’re communicating well with Town Council and ensuring that there’s good communication between the public safety groups. I think our folks have done a really good job with that. We’ve certainly had conversations about how we can make sure we’re streamlining that and making sure everyone’s on the same page.
DTH: What would you like to say about the memorials and the markers on Franklin Street and the discussion recently? Part of the plaque had been removed before the crews got there, so do you know why the Town didn’t mention that initially?
MJ: I don’t think we knew about it until later on that morning, to be honest with you. The public works crews came in and removed it because it was there, and I don’t think anyone knew about it until later on that morning when there were social media posts about it. They went back, they were like, ‘Oh yeah, that was missing,’ but they just weren’t aware of it. They just picked up the marker and moved it, so I think that’s why that happened.
DTH: Do you know what scale the investigation is going to be into who stole it?
MJ: That’s something you’d have to talk to the police department about where we are with that and whether it’s even a crime. The marker itself had been taken the week before, Friday night, and we were able to recover that and the police looked into that and I think they consulted with the district attorney to confirm that with them and they determined there really wasn't a crime committed at that point because it was a marker left out on public property, which we weren’t 100 percent sure if it was Town property or UNC property at the time, and we’ve since learned at least preliminarily from the attorney general, they believe it’s Town property. That’s why we felt comfortable removing both markers from Franklin Street last week when we were concerned from a public safety standpoint. There was an increase in caustic rhetoric between these two sides, and these markers have become a symbol that we thought was going to cause some public safety concerns.
Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major.
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