The Orange County Board of County Commissioners general election is uncontested after a decisive primary election. The election was largely influenced by the endorsements of two local groups: the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) and Save Orange Schools.
The board will be welcoming two new commissioners this fall after incumbents Penny Rich and Mark Marcoplos were unseated in the March 3 primary.
Amy Fowler, a pediatrician and the vice chairperson of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, will be replacing Marcoplos as the county's at-large commissioner.
Fowler said she decided to run for commissioner when she was made aware of the millions of dollars in repair work that needs to be done throughout CHCCS. Footage aired by CBS 17 in December 2019 showed roofs leaking and water pooling on the floors in Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill.
Jean Hamilton, a social worker and former CHCCS Board of Education member, will be joining incumbent Mark Dorosin as a District 1 commissioner after unseating Rich, who is the chairperson of the BOCC.
Hamilton said her experience with schools is one of the reasons behind her running.
“One of the big issues is the state of our aging school buildings," Hamilton said. "There’s no plan to address that, and that’s the responsibility of our county commissioners. But I also care about affordable housing, reliable transportation, racial equity, and, we need to develop our economy in a way that’s sustainable.”
Incumbent Renee Price, vice chairperson of the BOCC, ran unopposed for the District 2 seat.
CHALT is an organization founded in 2014 that advocates for what it considers to be responsible growth in Chapel Hill.
“We just want to see Chapel Hill better,” Julie McClintock, a programs coordinator with CHALT, said. “We want to see new, smart development that respects the environment.”
Save Orange Schools is a group formed in 2020 in response to concerns over CHCCS infrastructure. The group supports prioritizing funding for school maintenance and safety.
Both organizations endorsed Fowler for the at-large seat and Hamilton for a District 1 seat, primarily because they prioritize school maintenance and education. CHALT also endorsed Price, who ran unopposed for the District 2 seat.
“We’ve got two candidates that really know education and what’s going on with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools,” McClintock said. “We (CHALT) felt that the schools were not receiving the attention from the commissioners that we felt they deserved, so I think that was a strong motivator to get involved.”
In response, Rich said the commission generally designates half of the county operating budget to the school system. However, she said the schools had an undesignated fund balance of over $11 million and questioned why it hadn't been used by the school for maintenance.
Both CHALT and Save Orange Schools have affiliated political action committees — the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC and the Save Orange Schools PAC. According to campaign finance records, neither of the PACs made direct contributions to Fowler’s or Hamilton’s campaigns.
Hamilton said she welcomes endorsements from groups that align with her views, but they won’t dictate her decision-making.
“I’m not in anyone’s pockets," Hamilton said. "I’m going to think through the issues myself."
In addition to endorsing candidates, CHALT criticized those they didn’t endorse, incumbents Dorosin, Marcoplos and Rich, saying they haven’t prioritized the schools. They also criticized them because they supported the Durham-Orange Light Rail project, a project shut down in 2019 that CHALT opposed.
“I really think that we should be able to talk to each other and not attack people for positions that we don’t agree with,” McClintock said. “And I think the candidates we endorsed are outstanding on that scale, and I don’t think we’ve always seen that from our current commissioners.”
CHALT also took into consideration the candidates’ abilities to collaborate and be receptive to community input when considering who, and who not, to endorse.
However, Rich said CHALT was particularly critical towards her. On their website, they said she was unwilling to consider new information and was dismissive of citizen input. Rich said claims that she isn’t collaborative aren’t true.
“During this pandemic, I’ve had to collaborate with people every single day," Rich said. "You can’t say I’m not collaborative. They (CHALT) have taken things to a very personal level instead of balancing what people have done in their political career.”
Rich said moving forward, she hopes the commissioners continue to serve as a body that represents everyone in Orange County.
“Orange County has an amazing staff,” she said. “And the commissioners need to be there for everybody, not just the people that look like them or believe in their values.”
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