Keeping in step with the mayor

Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver

You might find her walking with her daughter during an early morning school event, or marching to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with community members in sub-freezing temperatures. Attend a town council meeting and you will again find her leading the group in discussions through the late evening hours. But perhaps one of the easiest ways to find Hillsborough’s Mayor Jenn Weaver is to drop by Cup-A-Joe in downtown, where she will likely be snacking on a pastry and re-charging with coffee.

And for all her visibility in the community, the mayor and former commissioner insists she hasn’t always been so comfortable with the high-profile work.

“I’m a public policy nerd at heart,” Weaver says between sips of coffee. “That is what my interest in local government is. I love the super-nerdy part of it. The public event part, and the meet and greet stuff, that just doesn’t come as easily to me. But I’m really enjoying it. There’s some of that as a commissioner, but there’s more of it as a mayor. And the focus is a little different. It’s been surprising how much I’m enjoying that.”

It also helps to be smitten with the town you’ve been elected to serve and guide into the future. 

“I always have trouble when asked ‘what is your one favorite thing about being mayor,’” she says. “But really it’s getting to be the spokesperson for a town that people love so much. It’s such a gift.”

The News of Orange County recently caught up with Mayor Weaver, and talked with her about her plans to change Hillsborough, and how being mayor has changed her.

News of Orange County: Where are you from? 

Mayor Weaver: I grew up in Charlotte. I was born in Spartanburg, S.C. My family briefly moved to Winston-Salem, and then to Charlotte when I turned five. That’s where I lived all through high school. 

NOC: How long have you been in Hillsborough? 

MW: 12 years. 

NOC: What did you do before you became mayor? 

MW: Various things. I was in a PhD program in Political Science. I became pregnant, and I was not going to try to write a dissertation with a baby. So, I never completed that program. I started working when my oldest was a toddler. I worked for an organization that was in the School of Journalism on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. We took research that was being done on campus and did literal translations into easily understandable language, things that would be useful to state policy makers. When the recession hit, all kinds of state funding was cut, including the funding for that program. After my second child was born, I worked part time for Clean Water for N.C. I was elected to the town board. So, I was doing that, serving on the town board and was the main on-the-scene-parent for the kids. I got to a point where I felt like I wasn’t doing any of those things as well as I wanted, so I let some of that go. 

NOC: How many kids do you have? 

MW: Two, a seventh grader and a fourth grader.  

NOC: Who in Hillsborough do you consider to be a rockstar?

MW: When you say ‘who is a rockstar,’ the first person that comes to my mind is Tom Stevens. He was mayor for so long and such a well-liked figure, and I know that he was vocal about supporting me running for mayor, which I know was helpful to me. That being said, I tend to think about power in a little different way. Or rather, I think we should be looking at it in a different way. Hillsborough, as in every other town, has some people who are more involved and paying closer attention than others. So you see a lot of familiar faces. But what feels really important to me is to remember that those aren’t the only voices. So, I’m trying to reach out in other ways, to people in communities who might not come to the meetings, or might not be the ones I see at the coffee shop. That’s just something I’m cognizant of and always trying to improve upon.

NOC: What would you like to accomplish as mayor? 

MW: Provide leadership on getting Hillsborough on the road to preparing for climate change. I’ve talked about this a lot, all through my campaign, and I can’t stress enough how important it is. Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really important and a really big problem,’ but maybe they’re not fully embodying the issue, or cognizant of how severe and urgent an issue it is. If I can just get a broader spectrum of this community to get onboard with that idea, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something.

We have lots of planning and planning updates that we need to do to carry Hillsborough into the future in a healthy and sustainable way. We’re just starting that process. There are some concurrent thoughts happening. We’re just trying to figure out how to shuffle that forward. But we need to do comprehensive planning, and planning for climate is part of that for town operations.

NOC: Where’s your favorite place to eat in Hillsborough? 

MW: I lived in the Southwest for 10 years — mostly in Arizona. Mexican food is always going to be high on my list. We have great Mexican food here in Hillsborough, and that is so different from when I was growing up in North Carolina. We didn’t have this Latino population.

NOC: Where is your favorite place to take out of town guests? 

MW: If they are physically able, we’ll usually go somewhere outside, most often Occoneechee Mountain Park. I’m someone who needs to spend a lot of time outside, and it’s a literal life saver to have that here. 

NOC: What do see as the greatest challenge facing Hillsborough? 

MW: Again, I think that climate change is the biggest challenge facing all of us in every sector. What we need to do to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and also to create a kind of community that we want, which is inclusive, sustainable, walkable — it’s going to be very similar solutions for all of those things to happen. They will also require some changes that aren’t going to be too comfortable. I think that presents a big challenge as to how to be sure that we have deep community engagement so that we’re talking with each other about what’s happening and why. We need to have the level of engagement and conversation so the solutions that we come up with — hopefully together — have buy-in, even if it’s not always comfortable. 

NOC: What are your thoughts on the removal of the Thomas Ruffin portrait from the Orange County Courthouse? 

MW: I think it’s wonderful. How history is told is important. Who we lift up in places of prominence — that says something, in and of itself. Taking down the portrait doesn’t mean people are going to forget who Thomas Ruffin was. But it opens a door to give a fuller telling of who he was.

NOC: What’s the best thing Hillsborough has going for it? 

MW: Definitely its people. And its landscape. There’s something that draws people here. It sounds corny, but I just think we have a great community that is committed to whatever the Hillsborough magic is, fostering it and making it even better.  

NOC: How do you balance the people who love the quaintness of Hillsborough and who don’t want it to change with the people who worry about the town’s opportunities for growth? 

MW: I absolutely feel that tug-of-war. One of the other biggest challenges that faces Hillsborough is how expensive it is, especially with regard to housing. Also wrapped into housing is the cost of transportation. You think of every person that will be burdened by housing costs, they’re also going to be burdened by health care costs. There are some big economic forces that have an impact on our little town. Housing prices keep going up, wages have largely stayed flat for many people. It’s not an easy problem for the town of Hillsborough to get at as long as we stay a desirable place to live. We are a desirable place to live for all the reasons I talked about. We’re also centrally located to some of the biggest job centers in the state. People are willing to commute to them. So, whether people are coming to Hillsborough to work, which is ideal, or they’re moving here to commute to other jobs nearby, people are coming here. Looking down the road, it’s hard to imagine something happening that would stop that, or cause it to end. We are, I think, ahead of the curve compared with some of our neighbors with regard to housing stock. People have to have a place to live. We want to keep Hillsborough accessible to all kinds of people.