Chapel Hill Town Council appointment: Do the right thing

Here is a commentary I contributed to WCHL last week (it ran last Friday, but I can't find links to their recordings anymore). It was a little too long so the bit in gray was not on the air.

Much has been said about the abrupt departure of Bill Strom from the Chapel Hill Town Council. Whatever frustrations we may have had with him, at least we can take comfort in the fact that Strom will no longer have any influence on Orange County politics.

As they have done with all other mid-term vacancies in recent history, the Town Council will appoint a replacement to finish Strom's term. The Town Council also has a long-standing tradition of using the appointment process to ensure that there is at least one African-American sitting at the table.

The Council has wisely opted to wait and make this appointment after the newly-elected members are seated. This will help to ensure that the voters are well-represented when the Council votes on this appointment. Some would like the Council to appoint the candidate who came 5th, but when we went to the polls last week, we picked our top FOUR candidates, not FIVE. We can speculate about what the outcome would have been, but the fact is: voters didn't get a chance to express our fifth choice. We have to trust our elected representatives to fill this vacancy through the Council's normal process, and I expect them to consider the diverse skills and perspectives that each member contributes to make up an effective governing body.

Given the current opening left by Strom, and the fact that the Council will become all-white when the new members are sworn in on December 7th, I think the Council's direction should be clear.  They have an opportunity to take the sour taste left by Strom's resignation and make lemonade by using the opening to meet an important need on the Council.

Several of the dozen people who applied to fill this seat have the basic qualifications to serve on the Council, but there is one candidate that stands out among them. She brings experience serving on Town Boards, has a background in public service, is rooted in the community, AND can bring a much-needed African American perspective to the Town Council. Her name is Donna Bell.

The are plenty of white males at the table already. In fact, I seem to recall that it was one of them that got us into this appointment discussion in the first place. I hope the Council has the will to do the right thing, and appoint a qualified African American like Donna Bell to fill Bill Strom's seat.




As I have said before, something I have learned this semester in my Public Policy Analysis grad class is that election design has drastic effects on the outcome, which leads me to believe that the person who gets 5th in a 4 way race isn't by any means necessarily who would get 5th in a 5 way race.  Nevertheless, I think the new council should consider who got 5th in the 4 way race as a factor, but not the only one - it would be a pretty rotten thing to have put all those applicants through the application process only to end up not considering them at all.  I also think achieving a more representative council should be a factor.  And listening to community input should be a factor as well.  And in the end I think the deciding factor should the best judgment of the newly elected council after weighing all these factors.

Jake has expressed the factors I'd like to see the council consider when filling the vacancy. I do believe that there were two African American applicants, one was female and the other was male. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Aaron Shah is a single father living in the Northside neighborhood. To play devil's advocate: why not him?

I've never meet Aaron and all I know about him is that he lives in Northside, and that he filed to run for Council a few years ago and pulled out before the campaign started. I'd be glad to hear more about what he wants to do on the Council but he seems media-shy. What I know about Donna is that is she is smart, my age (late 30's), lives in Northside, and has many qualifications for the office including service on the town's Planning Board and Visioning Task Force, has an MSW degree (and experience as a social worker), is the mother of a toddler, is a homeowner and small-time landlord, is a UNC alumn.  She's concerned about affordable housing, the environment, downtown, social services, and a lot of other issues that I also care about.

If you gave this commentary on the radio then previously uninformed citizens that heard it will think that choices are to appoint Donna Bell or else not appoint an African American.  Also, the assertion that Strom no longer has any influence on OC politics is dubious and sematic at best.  For crying out loud, we're still trying to figure out who is going to take Strom's seat because of when he resigned.  After we figure out who will take his seat, that person will be on the TC only because of Strom.  Incumbents have an advantage so if Strom's replacement runs for re-election then Strom will still be affecting local politics.  The whole affair will affect local poltics for years.  That is the whole reason why people were/are so po'ed.  And I can't help but note the irony of your reasoning that we shouldn't appoint a white male because Strom is a white male and messed up to get us into this predicament.  By that same logic, couldn't we say that we shouldn't appoint anyone supported by people who also supported Strom because those people supported the guy that got us into this predicament and therefore they have bad judgement? I think it's a foregone conclusion that TC will appoint an AA and the only question is Bell or Shah and I'd be surprised if most other people don't too (which BTW is why I think it was foolish for Jon Pohlman to lobby for's a no win thing for him to do).

I served on the CH Planning Board with Donna Bell and believe she would be an excellent choice to represent us on the Town Council. She is thoughtful, clearheaded and makes decisions based on her best judgement. I believe that, regardless of your race (or hers), your view of the world (or hers) that you will find her to be intelligent, fair minded, and someone who listens well and considers varying views before making decisions.  Suzanne

that Donna Bell would be an awesome choice.  One of the factors that I think should be considered is community input.  And for my input as a part of the community, I hope Donna Bell is selected.

I wrote this editorial supporting Donna Bell that was published in today's Chapel Hill News:

I'm inclined to agree; I think Donna would make an excellent choice.

I will disagree with the others, Joe. I don't like  your editorial. Not because you support Donna Bell; I've heard a number of individuals speak to her strengths and I've read her posts here. I'm sure she would make a fine council member and would add to the much needed diversity of thought.It's your rationale for supporting her that I disagree with. You start off by saying this is a progressive community with a history of supporting African American representation on council. While I agree with that statement, I also believe that supporting democracy is a progressive value. From my perspective, there are two progressive values in conflict. Donna and Aaron could have chosen to run for election this year. There was a funding source to help them do so. Neither one of them chose that option. Others, like Matt Pohlman, invested time, money, and effort to run for election. Matt received 3,000 some votes. Maybe not enough to win a seat, but certainly more than the 6 votes Donna or Aaron may receive through the appointment process.  The citizens of this town vetted Matt and many supported him through their vote. Democracy matters.The other aspect of your editorial is the implication that the "fiscal conservatives" care more about money than they do about diversity. I'm personally offended by that logic. But on a more intellectual basis, I think we can agree that the portion of the progressive community you represent (per your editorial)--the ones who care more about diversity than money--cast more votes and obviously chose not to support the lone African American candidate. I don't see how anyone can honestly cast Jim Merrit's loss as a result of fiscal conservatives participating in larger numbers. There's no mathematical logic in that argument.Finally, I think your editorial continues the artificial division between Matt's supporters and Mark's. There is no one definition of progressive. It's a continuum. Many of Mark's supporters care about fiscal responsibility and many of Matt's supporters care about diversity and environmental protection. Let's please let the artificality of that division die and put our efforts back to working together on the matters we all care about.

"Matt received 3,000 some votes. Maybe not enough to win a seat, but certainly more than the 6 votes"I think a better way to understand that comparison is by working with the same units.  If each of those 6 representatives was elected with about 3.5k votes, that is about 21k votes saying we trust these representatives' judgment vs 3k that a particular individual recieved.Again I think those 3k should be a factor weighed in the decision, but not the whole of the decision by any means.  

Terri said: "I don't see how anyone can honestly cast Jim Merrit's loss as a result of fiscal conservatives participating in larger numbers."Well certainly it would be a mistake to think that - mostly because the 2009 voters were probably not a notably different group of people than the 2007 voters in Chapel Hill.  That is to say, I doubt that fiscal conservatives particpated in larger than normal numbers in Chapel Hill in 2009, so I think it would be absurd to ascribe any aspect of the race to that cause.

"Matt received 3,000 some votes. Maybe not enough to win a seat ..." 

Maybe?  Do you think he might have actually won?

I believe that everyone who cast their 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th vote for Matt believed he should be given a seat on council. I believe the same of all those who cast one of their votes for Jim Merritt. There were just more for Matt. Furthermore, I believe that if Jim Merritt had placed 5th, there wouldn't be any discussion about how to proceed.

...Jim Merritt did not submit his name for appointment.  So if he had placed 5th there would be plenty of discussion on how to proceed.  Unless you mean that it would be more obvious that the council should appoint an African-American, even if it couldn't be Jim Merritt.  

OK,  but the principle still stands. If the 5th place finisher had applied for seat and been African-American, appointing the 5th place finisher would be a done deal.


I'm glad you made a point of saying that the people on the opposite side of you in the last election weren't racist, but backing off the line of calling them racist wouldn't have been necessary if you hadn't walked up to the line in the first place.Also, tax and money issues affect African Americans.  Implying otherwise as you did in your column is racially insensitive.  But even so, I won't say you're racist. Seriously, if anyone here can say with a straight face that if what Joe Capowski did to others in that column was done to them then they wouldn't be angry then I will tell them that they are delusional on this particular matter.And the count is now at 2 for the number of powerful local politicos who have used their positions to say in the media that an AA should be appointed to TC and therefore it should be Donna Bell and who have conveniently failed to mention that another AA has also applied for the open seat.  And consequently, more CH citizens now likely believe that the only choices are (1) AA Donna Bell and (2) a non-AA.  Why do I get the feeling that the fix is in and that the issue isn't whether a person is AA at all and instead is whether the person is named Donna Bell?

Nice job Joe and very gracious of you considering your application for the seat.

I agree--an excellent editorial that reflects both graciousness and integrity. The TC will miss your service.

Neloa Jones

I fully support the nomination of Donna Bell to the Chapel Hill town council.  I think she would do a terrific job.  But I believe there is a danger that the council, having made the appointment, will pat itself on the back and think that it has done something truly meaningful on behalf of people of color in the community.The appointment of an African American on the town council is, and always has been, largely a symbolic gesture (albeit an important one).  What I'm more interested in is: What will this council do to work toward social, racial and economic justice in our community?  What actions will this council take that will have a positive effect on the lives of people of color, many of whom are struggling with unemployment, substandard housing, unequal access to education and healthcare, and neighborhoods peppered with violence and drugs?  What will this council do to demonstrate that it respects the needs and concerns of all members of the community?I urge members of the council to think about these questions as they move forward.  Following tradition by appointing a black person to the town council is one thing, but actually working to address issues that are of concern to the historically marginalized people of our community is another.

Thanks so much for your generous support.  I am excited about having the opportunity to use my civic experiences to further serve this town that I love.  That is one thing I want to be clear, while I am african american, I am also qualified to hold this position.  And with all challenges I take on in my life, I only do them when I can give them my best effort while maintaining my commitment to my family.  I hope I get a chance to know all of you better.  As town council person or just Donna Bell citizen, I will always find ways to serve my community.

I just want to verify that Donna did indeed write the above comment (I spoke to her). Apparently, she forgot to log in.

The Council voted 6-2 tonight (Pease & Czajkowsi supporting Matt Phlman instead) to appoint Donna Bell to the vacant seat on the Town Council.  I wasn't surprised that Gene Pease didn't support Donna (although I thought he might, having served with her on the Planning Board), but I was quite disappointed to hear that he framed the debate in terms of race VERSUS qualifications.I hope Matt Pohlman stays involved in local issues. He seems nice and I'm sure he would have a lot to contribute.

Congratulations Donna!


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