The Durham City Council voted unanimously on Monday night to rescind a 60-day timeline to fill a seat left vacant when Vernetta Alston resigned to join the General Assembly.

Instead, the council invoked a state statute that does not specify a timeline for the process. 

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton made a motion to rescind the timeline after several influential political organizations, including the People’s Alliance, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and Friends of Durham, voiced concerns about a selection process that would take place amid a pandemic and stay-at-home orders. 

The PA and the Durham Committee wanted the city to forgo an appointment and put the finalists for the seat on the November ballot. But in a memo on Friday, the city attorney said council members have an obligation to try to appoint someone first under the city charter. Since the city is invoking state law instead of the charter, the option for an election is gone; any election wouldn’t take place until 2021, when the Ward 3 seat will be on the ballot anyway. 

Under the original timeline, which the council approved earlier this month, the new member would have been picked and sworn in by the first week of May.  

“What has changed, Mr. Mayor, is that we’re more knowledgeable about our options,” Middleton said, “and I think those options allow us to do something that is important to all of us, and that is to maintain our strict guardianship and protection of our love of equity in this city.”

Middleton said that he understood the importance of following the letter of the law that’s made clear in the city charter.

He noted that one of the signature issues of the civil rights movement was ballot access for African Americans. The council should “be careful and not create extra barriers to access” during a time when many residents are struggling with unemployment and fear—including fear of even leaving their homes.

The council agreed to discuss the vacancy again at its August 6 meeting. 

“I do deeply believe the charter requires us to try and make the appointment, but I’m happy to proceed under state legislation,” Schewel said. 

“I think proceeding under the state statute is the most reasonable course for us now,” added council member Charlie Reece. The city’s stay-at-home order “won’t be lifted anytime soon,” he said, so rescinding the timeline “makes all the sense in the world.”

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