In a pre-pandemic world
, the empty seat would be noticeable. At Chapel Hill Town Council meetings, there would be a hole, a place where a nameplate should go.

In a pre-pandemic world, there would be nine members of the Chapel Hill Town Council (including the mayor), instead of eight. And there were, until January, when former council member Rachel Schaevitz announced that she and her family were moving to New Zealand.

As the INDY reported after Schaevitz’s departure, the town’s bylaws say someone should be appointed to fulfill her term, which was supposed to end in 2021. The council received applications for the position at the end of March, again in accordance with the city bylaws.

Yet today, more than 10 months after Schaevitz announced that she was leaving, the seat is still empty. It is the longest the council has ever gone with a vacancy on the council, according to Town Clerk Sabrina Oliver.

In an October 7 meeting, Mayor Pam Hemminger addressed the vacancy. She also brought up an idea from the town council retreat last winter.

“We are still interested in taking up this matter, but because of COVID, because of the situation, because of the national elections, we wanted to wait until there was a time when we could have members of the public be more involved in this,” Hemminger said in the October meeting. “It’s a bigger community conversation, and the council had also expressed their interest in the conversation first about whether we were considering reducing the number of council members from nine to seven.”

Changing town council size is uncommon, but so is the large size of Chapel Hill’s; Durham City Council has seven members, and Raleigh City Council has eight. Similar-sized college towns tend to have smaller councils; Boone, North Carolina has six council members, and Charlottesville, Virginia has five. Nine-person councils are more common in mid-size cities like Greensboro, N.C. and Richmond, V.A. While other, larger councils may only have a fraction of at-large members, every member of Chapel Hill’s Town Council is at-large—meaning that all nine members are speaking for the whole town, rather than a particular ward or district.

“Often, everybody wants to say something so that residents know where we stand on things, or we can explain why we’re voting the way we are, or so we can add to the conversation,” council member Jess Anderson says of the current meetings. “So our meetings ended up being incredibly long, which is not great for getting people to run for council, because it becomes a really onerous job; but it’s also not great for the public, and for transparency.”

The town council, formerly called the “Board of Aldermen,” was expanded in 1975 in a package that included changing the mayoral term to four years instead of two, setting a term limit for the mayor, and giving the mayor voting power. 

Gerry Cohen, a former council member who studied law at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says he remembers reasoning that the board should be expanded to ensure diversity. As a current member of the Wake County Board of Elections, he didn’t want to take a position on the matter, but he added that the Chapel Hill council has consistently had a Black member and that several students have served on the council.

When Mayor Hemminger and the council began looking into the issue, they didn’t find much to back the claim that a bigger board means a broader outlook—especially in a town like Chapel Hill, where opinion tends to be pretty homogenous. She says they also failed to find sources that said a bigger council meant more minority council members.

For Hemminger, Anderson, and other council members, it’s important that the community have the chance for a robust conversation once things are a bit more “normal”—especially since the current configuration of eight members hasn’t led to any issues.

“One would think we would have had a problem if there’s an even number, but we haven’t,” Hemminger says. “I’m sure we could, but we haven’t seen that yet. We’ve had some split votes, but it’s not been four-to-four.”

So for now, that vacant seat will sit empty a little longer.

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