Congratulations, Chapel Hill politicians. You’ve just won an election, a heated one at that. There’s no time to celebrate, though. You get to step into the thick of the polarizing debate on how to fill the remaining two years of Bill Strom’s council seat. Should you go with the fifth-place finisher in the election, as many residents have urged? Should you appoint someone who doesn’t look quite like you, adding a minority or youth vote to an all-white, middle-aged council?
You can’t do both, and you’re going to hear about it either way. Welcome aboard.
Here’s how we got here: Strom resigns days after the deadline to let citizens vote for his replacement. There are cries of collusion. Residents call for the fifth place finisher to get the seat. The council is noncommittal. Residents call for the new council to appoint the seat. All but Mayor Kevin Foy agree.
The new council will be sworn in Dec. 7. Two days later they’ll hold a special meeting to hear from the 10 remaining applicants. The new council could appoint the new member the following Monday, Dec. 14.
Matt Pohlman, the first-runner up, in the eight-person, four-winner council race is pointing to his vote total (203 short of victory) as his claim on the seat. “For people who have been talking about the voters owning the election, it sure seems to me that this choice should be relatively straight forward,” he said.
Black applicants Donna Bell and Aaron Shah can argue that the council will not be diverse without an African-American voice on the council. The council’s sole black member, Jim Merritt, wasn’t elected after being appointed to the seat last year. Bell and Shah’s argument is supported by a Public Policy Polling survey that found 57 percent of residents think it’s important to have a black leader on the council. By contrast, the number of people surveyed split evenly38 percent for each sidewhen asked if the seat should go to a losing candidate.
The council could go with experience provided by former councilmen Joe Capowski and Lee Pavao. Or a fresh face like Jason Baker, Joshua Ravitch or Brock Page. Also-rans Jon DeHart and Will Raymond applied, though their seventh and eight place finishes respectively make it difficult for them to gain council support.
Both mayor-elect mark Kleinschmidt and Penny Rich, the leading vote-getter in the election, say they will try to identify what is missing in the current council rather than use the election results as guidance.
“I think we need to look beyond now some overtly political ideology and look to other areas that are absent,” Kleinschmidt said. “I think for anyone who’s run for office it’s hard to not admire and appreciate the effort of anyone who’s done that, but I don’t think that’s a determinative measure.”
Rich has consistently said that the fifth-place finisher shouldn’t be guaranteed the seat. “It is a balance; someone that’s a voice that’s not being represented, and someone that’s been involved in town issues,” she said.” Unfortunately it’s one of those lingering issues that just needs to be put to bed.”