Future of the Town Council Without Broad Representation

By Michelle Cotton Laws, President of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP
(Also submitted to Mayor Kevin Foy.)

On behalf of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, I am writing to express our concerns over what appears to be some post-election jockeying about who the Council should appoint to the vacant seat left by Bill Strom. Buttressing our concerns is the outcome of the recent elections which have resulted in what will be a racially homogeneous Council that does not reflect the broader Chapel Hill community. While some Council members (and their constituents) may feel comfortable with this outcome and argue that “the people” spoke through the casting of their votes, there are others—including the NAACP—who believe that the results of the election have left us in a similar place where the “Founding” American colonists were when they protested against the British Crown through the historical Boston Tea party -- “taxation without representation” for many Chapel Hill residents in particularly a relatively large and deeply rooted African American community.

With the understanding that arguing from the vantage point of mere principle—ensuring that all voices and interests are represented in Chapel Hill’s body politic—it may be wise to examine more closely the technical and legal considerations. Specifically, let us consider the Council’s legal responsibility under the governing Town Ordinance, Section 2-24.

Town Ordinance Section. 2-24 provides that ‘A vacancy in the council which occurs in the first year of a four-year term of office, or during the portion of the second year which ends on the third day before the end of the filing period for that office as provided by the General Statutes, shall be filled by appointment of the town council only until the next general election, at which time the candidate receiving the fifth highest number of votes (and, if necessary, the sixth, seventh and eighth highest number) shall be declared elected for the remainder of the unexpired term. A vacancy occurring at any other time shall be filled for the remainder of the term.

Based on our legal interpretation of the Town's ordinance, since the Strom vacancy occurred after the third day before the end of the filing period for Council candidates, the emphasized sentence applies. The Council is required to fill this vacancy for the remainder of Strom’s term--two more years. Consideration about the fifth (or sixth, etc.) highest number of votes obviously does not apply to this appointment. If the ordinance-makers had intended to give some special significance to the also-rans--the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th placed finishers--obviously they could have done so. But the authors of the Ordinance that governs this situation clearly chose not to.

Further, the Council is required to fill the vacancy from the people who complied with the application schedule adopted by the Council in late September, which drew several applicants who were invited to make presentations to the November 9th Meeting of the Council. The Council clearly has the authority to appoint any of these applicants.

Additionally, it has been suggested that the seat is filled by an African American. Contrary to what some people believe—especially those who do not know our history--the NAACP—National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—was founded by, is supported in membership and partnership by, and remains committed to—people from ALL race/ethnic groups. We have always been and remain this day a multi-racial/ethnic, economically diverse, and non-partisan organization. For the record, the NAACP does not engage in partisan elections and local elections in North Carolina, traditionally, have been non-partisan.

What does concern us and forces us to become involved politically are instances when the public’s trust is being misused and manipulated for ill-gotten gains and to support the interests of a few or to foster fear-mongering of any group that is non-heterosexual, white, affluent or in some instances male. Recently, in reaction to the effectiveness of new fusion political alliances that have begun the hard work of dismantling social inequality and racist stratification structures in our society, the extreme right wing of one party has dusted off its exclusionary-political strategy playbook (remember the one used during the Jim Crow era where black codes were enforced to keep blacks from voting or the one that Carl Rove and the Bush dynasty frequently relied on) and have begun pouring major dollars into local races, to counter efforts to level the political playing field through public-funded elections. Big money is still intricately intertwined as it always has been in politics. Considering that historically, affluent whites have controlled both the money and the politics—it is becoming more difficult for people of color, not to mention the working class and poor—to compete in the electoral process as candidates, especially without broad-based support.

Each Council member has total discretion to select any applicant for the Strom vacancy. In considering how it will carry out its constitutional duty to equally protect and represent the interests of ALL “the people” in Chapel Hill, one factor to consider is how the Council can be fully informed about the views of the victims of racism or discrimination in its important deliberations without equitable if not equal representation on the Council. When the views of ALL “the people” especially those who historically have been disenfranchised and excluded, are not at the policy-making table or fully engaged and represented at all levels, we run the risk of going back down that dark path in our history when racial exclusion was the norm and civil discord was common practice. When persons who have historically been left out of the policy-making process are not at the table, issues like police misconduct, labor exploitation, and housing discrimination become much more difficult to dismantle and monitor. Trust and rapport between residents and public servants break down. Gentrification and environmental racism, which are two sides of the same coin, take on additional layers of oppression and practical solutions to social injustice and social problems are white-washed and begin to stall. As a result, old suspicions, mistrust and deep wounds begin to fester—caused in large part by empirical evidence and examples from the Town’s more shameful realities and experiences—e.g. Rogers Road and the landfill, Charles Brown and the police, Mercia and Greenbridge developers and their complicit role in the acceleration of gentrification in the Northside community, the educational achievement gap that continues to linger and grow, the conspicuous absence of minority-owned business on Franklin street not to mention Black male workers, etc. etc.

Based on these experiences that many of the current and newly elected board members are so far removed form, it only makes sense that there is diversity on the Council to ensure that the voices of the Town’s “poor, tired, huddled masses”—the hungry, homeless, and jobless are understood and represented. A voice that is more than just symbolic but one that can relate to the needs of people of color in a very real way that can be translated into policy and programs that of significance and substance.

The NAACP is very troubled to see that some politicians in Chapel Hill can get votes by blaming the homeless and hungry or poor for their plight. We are disturbed when some candidates campaigned on a platform advocating sweeping the poor out of sight—rather than addressing the underlying historical and political reasons for their presence. And equally disturbed when some on the current and newly elected board feel as one Council member stated in a News and Observer article (2008): “The people who have moved here in the past 20 years are not old Chapel Hillians who grew up in the halcyon days of Peace and Justice Plaza. That stuff doesn’t mean anything to them because they weren’t part of it.” Clearly this point of view is at odds with the members of the Chapel Hill—Carrboro NAACP, our legacy and our mission today. I also happen to believe that it is at odds with the majority of Chapel Hill residents who have not yet felt compelled to come forth in protest against the rising voice of a dangerously ultra conservative faction that have landed here in Chapel Hill for whatever reason (economic growth and the privileges it confers, small-town appeal, UNC and the Tarheels, etc). I am cognizant of the fact however that this is a very real and dangerous sentiment that is indeed growing in Chapel Hill and gaining power and influence day-by-day. However I have faith that contrary to what the council member who spoke these words articulated, “this stuff” (justice, equality, peace, and freedom) still means a lot to most Chapel Hillians—old and new—and when the time is right they are ready and able to rise up and speak out.

In the mean time, the NAACP will continue to be at the forefront fighting to make sure that our fundamental mission—the dismantling of institutional racism and the many ways that the legacies of slavery/Jim Crow manifest themselves are part of Chapel Hill’s past and NOT its current culture or future. We believe that all of us, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Native American, rich and poor, have a strong interest in making sure this mission, and the practical ways to carry it out in our community, are represented in every facet of the Town’s politics.

As a national organization, the NAACP has worked for one hundred years on ensuring that America is a place of hope and opportunity, freedom and equality, privilege and prosperity—not just for a select few but for all persons without regard to skin color, family lineage, socioeconomic status, religious preference, sexual identity, professional position or political ideology. We are stronger than ever and ready to continue this fight for the next hundred years.

We hope that when the Council considers the applicants for the Council seat left vacant by Bill Strom, that the NAACP’s views will be considered.

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3 Comments

James Barrett's picture

I wish the Council had just

I wish the Council had just made a decision this week to get this issue over with.  Ms. Laws has made a case for appointing a non-white to the board, but she ignores one significant (in my opinion) aspect.  If there was truly a desire by the applicants to serve on the council and bring additional viewpoints to the political process, why didn't they run for Council in front of the voters?  Mr. Shah and Ms. Bell have never run actual campaigns, listening to voters across Chapel Hill.  Mr. Pohlman may not be the perfect applicant to fill the vacant seat, but at least he has gone through the full process and been found by a significant number of voters to be a good choice.  That is the way democracy should work.  Period.    btw, nitpicking on the letter -- Tar Heels is two words and Mr. Rove's first name is Karl.

Steve Wells's picture

Agree with you

I had the distinction of living in Chesterfield when the Honorable Jessie Mays was elected to our Board of Supervisors (like the BOCC). He was the first black man ever elected in Chesterfield - Post Reconstruction. He was also an amazing man, veteran and did it in a district that had been setup to prevent this from happening by the Republicans running the county. He beat a very well-connected, white Republican. They just didn't count on Mr. Mays - a Democrat, a hardworker, a populist and man who reached out to the poor white farmers (that are all but gone now) and others who felt disenfranchised by the tone-deaf Republican Leadership that kept approving development projects that seemed to benefit a lot of their friends.I guess the bottom-line is that a campaign and a candidate really distinguish appointments. Given that Asian-Americans are one of the largest minorities in Chapel Hil and Latinos are a growing groupl, a strong argument could be made to appoint an Asian and Latino candidate if an opportunity presented itself.We have to be very careful that we aren't favoring one group over another, especially given the changing face of what constitutes minority in Chapel Hill. Personally, if we really want to give it to a minority, we should select someone who made less than $50,000 last year. The poor are the most under-represented in any government.

Barbara Crockett's picture

How to achieve minority representation in a democracy

As long as there is one-person/one-vote at-large voting in the town of Chapel Hill, the town will continue to be faced from time to time with the issue of how to seat minorities (any and all types, in this case African American) at the council table. I would be interested in knowing how the NCAACP feels about other voting models that might better ensure minority representation, e.g., voting by district or precinct, weighted voting, or other ideas.