Mayor Pam Hemminger: What I’ve Learned in My First 90 Days

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Photo by Briana Brough
Photo by Briana Brough

Being mayor will always be one of the greatest honors of my life. While it was disappointing not to be re-elected in November, I have always admired Pam Hemminger. Having served on our local school board and as a member of the Orange County Commissioners, Pam’s leadership bona fides were unquestionable when she threw her hat in the mayoral ring. In late January, I had the opportunity to sit down with my successor and catch up with her as she began, what I’m sure will be, a successful term as our town’s second female mayor.

MARK KLEINSCHMIDT So now you’ve had about two months in office. What are your short-term priorities to kick-start e orts, the things you really want to get o the ground early?

PAM HEMMINGER Right away, I was interested in learning all I could possibly learn. Meeting with the staff, working with council members and trying to figure out what the synergy is within the council. Because it’s a new group. When you change one person in the group, it makes a whole different group. And they’re learning along with me, too, because I did bring some changes to the table. Mostly about how people receive the communications we put out there. It’s taken a little bit of extra effort, and now the staffers are bringing new ideas to the table as well. So you’ll see citizen petitions online right now. Development projects are online. The rolling agenda is online. So people can look maybe three months in advance to see if an item is coming. One of the big initiatives on the ground is the feeding of kids over the summer.

MK I was going to ask you about that.

PH I try to meet with every group that could possibly be involved. UNC stepped up to the table offering resources and help, and we’ve met to kick that off. More than 3,000 children are on free and reduced lunch. So they qualify for federal assistance for food. And one of the issues happening with all the state cutbacks in education is that school systems have cut back on summer schools. So normally those children, a lot of them, would go to summer school, and they would get their breakfast and lunch at school. And they’re home for almost 10 weeks, and they’re not having those breakfasts and lunches, which means their families are having to spend the money on the food versus the other things they may need. The goal was to get groups to all come together at the table, including TABLE, to work together to figure out how we could cooperatively reach all those children. And the school system is excited about helping out with this because the food is available through the federal subsidy program, but they just don’t have a distribution network.

MK There is one really important power that I remember coveting: the power to convene. And it sounds like you’ve jumped into the deep end, taking on a big project, and you’re implementing that strength of the office right away.

PH And that was the whole intention behind it. To be the convener. I don’t have the answers to this problem, but I know we have the resources to figure this out.

MK You have some new people on the
 council. But I left a few veterans back there. Almost half. So what’s that been like?

PH It’s actually worked out pretty well. Because people with experience can help new people learn the ropes, and I’ve tried to get people sitting next to each other to help each other out. Because there is so much newness, even the incumbents are coming up with ideas of things they’d like to see. Now that they see we’re changing things, they have ideas to implement change, too.

MK It’s contagious, I guess?

PH I think that’s a good word for it. They can add that history and perspective of “well, we tried this before, and this is the result we got.” And we can use that information to maybe tweak the idea that we have.

MK You’ve talked about discovering Chapel Hill in new ways. Can you tell me a little bit more about what new perspective you have, as mayor?

PH I’ve been walking around a lot downtown. I was fascinated to go up to the Rosemary Street deck – Wallace Parking Deck. It’s incredible. A wonderful public space. I understand there’s some dynamics of it being too hot in the summer, those kind of things. But what a fabulous open space, and people aren’t using it. So I know that we are thinking about different plans for that space … I think it’s a valuable asset 
as downtown becomes more dense. Here’s a wide-open public space. Watching Carolina Square go up and learning all the dynamics of that has been fascinating, too. A university project being run by a private developer. So it’s an interesting mix of things going up right in the center of town.

MK You’ve been getting a lot of phone calls about the construction.

PH Citizens have some concerns. And, of course, if you live downtown, it’s a little hard to know that construction may be going on in the evening. It’s not every evening, but certain things have to happen. You can’t bring in concrete trucks during the day with cars and people. Change is hard for people, and, once they get through the change, usually they discover that it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was going to be.

Humans are very adaptable. I have my parking space at Town Hall. I get to walk everywhere. I’m enjoying it thoroughly. And people do stop you on the street and ask you questions, and I love that. It’s fun.

MK One of the things that I learned right away: When a person gets the chance to meet the mayor, say in Whole Foods, it’s exciting for them. Especially if they grew up in a larger city, where that’s not conceivable. Sometimes, it makes their day.

PH Well, it makes my day, so it’s kind of funny. I try to walk a bit in our neighborhood, and people honk now all the time.

MK Have you changed any of your behaviors? I remember, like most people, I used to travel up Martin Luther King Blvd. a little faster than the posted speed limit, until I was mayor.

PH I’m not running to the grocery store in my sweats. I did that already. It didn’t come across very well. People want the mayor to look like the mayor at all times. So that’s been a little interesting. Because I just didn’t ever used to care about that.

MK Your husband, Brad, played an active role in the campaign. I’m sure the shock of being recognized or being expected to know everybody in town is something your whole family has to deal with?

PH Yes. Though the kids are mostly out of the house. We have one son over here at UNC. But they have all been very supportive and very proud and it’s cute. The kids got me a huge pair of scissors for Christmas for ribbon cutting. … The funniest gift ever. A four-foot pair of scissors. My husband’s been great. Since it’s just the two of us at home now, we come up with the schedule for the week and say when we are going to have time. He’s teaching at UNC and coaching. We spend our weekends doing field trips in the community, checking things out together. He’s very analytical in nature, and it’s a nice perspective. I’m more of a gut reaction and kind of a take a gander at it, and listen to perspectives and then process. We have maps all over our dining room right now of Chapel Hill, as we talk about long-term planning. So that’s been a change.

MK That’s exactly how my house was. Images of the community, different kinds of maps.

PH I will tell you the fun part, too, has been the iconic stories. Hearing them from citizens … I knew some of the stuff before, but the history of Peace and Justice Plaza, the history of the Civil Rights movement, the history of why things are in certain pffaces. Carolina Co ee Shop, Porthole Alley. Those kinds of things. Hearing what they mean to other people I find very heartwarming and also gives you a perspective on why we are so proud of this town, and we have a really, really deep cultural, diverse history where we embrace different perspectives and opinions.

MK Whenever you just need to get away from your responsibilities, what do you do?

PH My husband and I like to travel. I get outdoors. We love to hike. I’m a gardener, and I play tennis.

MK While I was mayor, there were still a few things I didn’t give up. I was not going to be kept from my Carolina Football games, my Panthers games or my “Downton Abbey.”

PH Carolina Basketball and “Downton Abbey”!

MK There were just things that had to happen to keep me sane.

PH I could see that. I come home, and I try to get all the emails returned before I go to bed. And so that it makes it a very late night. I will say one of the most surprising things is that when citizens write in their complaints, they usually offer solutions. And I didn’t really get that at the school board or county commission. You just got the complaint. And so that’s helpful. We have some incredible, very experienced people – well-educated. And just people who have been in the community a long time who have some valuable information to offer. But it makes the emails much more in depth.

MK I was very impressed that your first council meeting ended within two hours. I wasn’t even able to finish my bottle of wine.

PH I bet [Town Manager] Roger Stancil the time frame….And I won!

MK I don’t think I ever won one of those bets with Roger. So, now that you are the authority on our community …

PH I’m the cheerleader. I’m learning to be the authority.

MK So say someone is passing through Chapel Hill, but they only have three hours. How can they experience Pam’s Chapel Hill?

PH My sister came to town last summer, and I suggested she stay at The Carolina Inn, go to Top of the Hill, walk up and down Franklin Street. She did a little shopping in some of the stores, had lunch at Med Deli. She went to He’s Not Here and walked across campus. Campus is beautiful. That walkability – seeing Chapel Hill from the ground is important – but then she got in the car and drove to a couple of spots. I sent her to Southern Season.

MK I was going to say: You can’t not go there.

PH But the walkability is what seems to interest a lot of people coming to visit us, and I love that. … We offer a feeling. A sense of place. And you see our diversity, and you see the different things that are all here that make us a unique and wonderful community.

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