Karen Stegman believes in the power of local government as a force for change. That’s why she takes her role on the Chapel Hill Town Council so seriously.

It all started when she brought a safety concern to the council years ago. She and her colleagues at the Orange County Family Resource Center petitioned the council to install a traffic light at an intersection known for being dangerous for pedestrians near a public housing community on South Estes Drive.

Despite being successful—there’s a traffic light there today—Stegman still recalls how intimidating it was to stand up in front of the council.

“I still remember that feeling, like your voice is kind of shaking,” she says. “That really changed how I understood the town, and who has access to its many resources and who doesn’t, how hard it is to advocate.”

Now, Stegman is used to navigating the complexities of local government to get things done, after she was first elected to the council in 2017. While the nerves may be gone, the reverence for the office is still there. 

“It’s an honor to be elected—you’re making really important decisions for the future of the town. Sometimes you stop and go, ‘Wow, I’m making these decisions. That’s a huge responsibility,’ says Stegman, who works full-time as the director of business development at IntraHealth International. “I take it very seriously.”

As the sole incumbent on the ballot this upcoming election, Stegman says she is motivated to continue the mission she began on the Town Council to reform local policing, expand affordable housing, and combat climate change. 

Stegman, who lives in Chapel Hill with her wife, judge Alyson Grine, and their two children, has lived in the area for 50 years, and in that time has witnessed the town grow and change.

In Chapel Hill, planning and development get a lot of attention, though much more goes into the running of a town.

“We’re also dealing with stormwater and economic development, policing and solid waste—just everything in a town,” she says. “You want to talk to the local business owners before you make a decision on their behalf. You want to make sure you’re doing your homework and getting input from a lot of different perspectives. That’s very time-consuming,”

Reflecting back on her time on the council so far, Stegman described navigating her first run for office as, “like having a baby.”

“You can read all the books, and people can tell you what it’s going to be like, but until you’re doing it, you can’t quite understand how all-consuming it is. It’s a lot of work,” Stegman says. “We deal with everything.”

Her four years of service are marked by some of her proudest achievements, Stegman says. Her work with council member Allen Buansi on developing a criminal justice debt fund program, alleviating the burden of court fees for low-income individuals, was at the top of her list. 

As one of four council members who helped bring the 2020 Community Safety Resolution Together to life, Stegman helped make changes to the Chapel Hill police department, like banning chokeholds and low-level regulatory stops, and helped establish the Re-imagining Community Safety Task Force. If re-elected, she says, it’s one of her main priorities to continue moving forward with this effort. 

Stegman also marks the Chapel Hill Climate Action Plan as an important accomplishment for the council as a whole. 

On her campaign platform for her next term in office, Stegman advocates for increased investment in affordable housing, proactively responding to climate change, revitalizing downtown Chapel Hill, and examining how to better address public safety. Stegman says she hopes to explore more options to limit car-based infrastructure, making the city more pedestrian-friendly. 

Stegman says she is proud of all the Town Council has done on affordable housing, which will continue to be a top priority for her. During her time on the council, the town passed a $10 million bond for affordable housing, added three more plots of town-owned land for affordable housing, and reformed the Blue Hill district. 

Recently, anonymous signs cropped up across Chapel Hill reading “Stegman voted for AURA & Betrayed You.”  

Aura Chapel Hill, a residential and commercial project planned for a former 15-acre tree farm at the northeastern corner of the intersection, was approved by the council in June and includes dozens of affordable units among 419 apartments and townhomes and more than 15 thousand square feet of commercial space.

Stegman is the only council member running for re-election who voted for the project, 

No one has taken public responsibility for the signs, but fingers have been pointed toward the neighborhood advocacy group CHALT—the Chapel Hill Alliance for A Livable Town—though CHALT has denied any part in it. 

Stegman indicates this is a “sign” of the times in Chapel Hill, a sign of folks trying to, “denigrate the quality of communication and dialogue in town.”

Speaking out against the signs has put Stegman in a tricky position. 

“When you have people who are very strategically and intentionally misinforming the community about what their government is doing so that the community doesn’t trust their local government, it’s challenging to talk about,” Stegman explains. 

But, she points out, with signs like this, it’s clear to her that this isn’t just one person with a different view. 

“It is about specific people with a specific agenda who are very systematically trying to denigrate the quality of communication and dialogue in town,” she says “It just makes it really hard to move forward productively.” But Stegman says she doesn’t want to alienate community members who have different opinions about how the town should run.

“I never want it to sound like, ‘Oh, she just doesn’t want to hear from the public. She’s criticizing the public,’ which is not the case at all,” Stegman continues. “It’s so important to differentiate between people in the community having ideas and opinions and feelings about what is happening in town. That is very valid.”

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