Chapel Hill Town Council member Donna Bell criticized her colleagues for rejecting the nomination of Josh Mayo, a black UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student who focuses on transportation policy issues, to the Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board.
In a 6–3 vote on October 30, the council instead installed an older white man on the advisory panel.
“Yes, we made a decision to appoint another Caucasian man who is 55+,” she tweeted. “We say we value diversity but every time we have the option, we blink. We keep appointing 55+ Caucasian men and women.”
According to data gathered from the applications of those serving on town advisory boards, 37 percent are over the age of fifty-five and seventy-five percent are white. By comparison, according to U.S. Census data, about 11 percent of residents are over age sixty-five—a reflection of the fact that it’s a college town—and 72.5 percent are white.
The town council generally agrees that this is not good enough.
The application for town boards is open to the public and begins with an online form. Those who apply have the opportunity to present their case to the current advisory board, which in turn makes its nominations to the town council. This year, three people pitched themselves to the advisory board: Mayo, former advisory board member Heather Brutz, Jack Waley.
The advisory board nominated Mayo and Brutz.
The council selected Waley.
Brutz, an operations manager at NC Clean Energy, was the only applicant for the board seat reserved for bicycle specialists, which has not yet been filled. Rather than filling the seat, the council left it vacant.
“I had never heard of anyone being nominated and then having their nomination rejected,” Brutz says, adding that she recognizes that all three candidates brought strengths to the table.
Waley, a retiree, was appointed to fill the board’s resident seat. Council member Hongbin Gu says he’s the kind of voice that needs to be heard, as he’s 100 percent transit-dependent.
Mayo says he was disappointed in the council’s decision but plans to keep looking for ways to get involved and serve the community.
“I don’t know if there’s systematic bias. It comes with the same hurdles as with the town process,” Mayo says. These hurdles, he explains, are having the time and means to get involved—things retirees are more likely to have than grad students or young professionals.
Mayor Pam Hemminger says that two factors that contribute to a lack of diversity on the town’s boards are applicants’ busy schedules and the misperception that, to hold a position on an advisory board, you need expertise in that area.
To recruit minority residents to volunteer for advisory boards, the town passed a budget item last year that provides funding for transportation and childcare so that people can come to meetings and public hearings. The town also hosts an annual Peoples Academy, a five-week program that teaches participants about the town’s services and leadership opportunities.
“We would like to see opinions from different people, especially those people who our policies will impact, people from low-income, minorities, those who depend on transit—those voices are usually not represented in our advisory board,” Gu says.
While she acknowledges a lack of diversity of Chapel Hill’s boards, she says the council is actively trying to rectify the situation.
“A decision was made against what the council said was one of their main concerns, creating diversity on the boards, and we had a good opportunity,” she says.
In this case, it wasn’t that the city had a hard time attracting younger and diverse applicants; the council just rejected them, Bell says.
When advisory boards lack diversity and the town council only hears from a small segment of the community, policymakers get tunnel vision. Bell agrees that Waley is qualified, but so were Mayo and Brutz, and to reject them shows the council’s lack of commitment to its own goals, she argues.
“We are an affluent, entitled community. We think we are the smartest person in the room. We think we don’t need to bring diversity,” she says. “Is it systemic that we are passing over qualified folks for the benefit of white folks that are over fifty-five? I don’t know if we have enough information to prove this. But this case shows that there is a problem. It is so bold and flagrant that there is some problem.”
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