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Bill Strom is leaving two years before his term expires. What is Chapel Hill to do with his vacant seat: appoint a resident or award the fifth-place finisher?

Councilman saddles Chapel Hill with a doozy of a dilemma 

Sitting in his downtown Durham office as the news of Chapel Hill Town Councilman Bill Strom's resignation became public, his colleague, and Chapel Hill mayoral hopeful, Mark Kleinschmidt, admitted his surprise.

"I always believed that Bill would run for mayor," said Kleinschmidt, who served alongside Strom for eight years. "I never had a dialogue with him about it, but I wasn't sure until the 17th (the filing deadline)."

In fact, Strom, who, until July 31, was one of two senior council members, had previously flirted with pursuing Chapel Hill's top office, but said he'd never run against incumbent Kevin Foy. So when Foy didn't seek another two-year term this election, it seemed the "Strom for Mayor" campaign signs would be rolled out. Not so. Instead, Strom himself is rolling out two years before his term expires. He released a statement saying he was resigning, effective Aug. 1.

The news has led to a flock of rumors. He's living in a Winnebago. He's moving up north. For months, he's known he would leave and played politics to allow the council, and not voters, to pick his successor. After all, if he had resigned just two weeks earlier, five seats, not four, would be open on the ballot.

So far, Strom isn't talking (messages left on his cell phone were not returned), but he's left a complicated question for his former council mates to answer: What is Chapel Hill to do with Strom's vacant seat?

There are a few options: According to town ordinance, the council can appoint a resident to finish the term. This requires that the mayor announce a vacancy at the next council meeting, set for Sept. 14. Town leaders would have seven days to post the opening, with an application deadline of 30 days after that announcement. Nominations would be made at the next council meeting, with an appointment to come as early as the following meeting.

Second, the town ordinance doesn't mandate a deadline to fill the seat, and some have said it's preferable to wait until after the Nov. 3 election to decide. Not counting Strom's post, four seats are up for grabs, with eight candidates running.

It could make sense, then, that the fifth-place finisher is awarded the final two years of the Strom seat, even though voters only get to tick four boxes per ballot.

That's where things get prickly. The town ordinance was last amended in 1995, when it was decided that resignations had to be announced three days prior to the candidate-filing deadline to be considered an open seat for election. Strom's plans became public 12 days after the filing deadline.

Whether coincidental or intentional, as some have theorized, it leaves a sticky situation for the council, especially the five incumbents vying for office this year.

"Five months with an empty seat, I'm not sure it's a good idea to have that office sit empty that long. There's a lot of business that goes on. The community deserves to have a complete body to deliberate," said Kleinschmidt, adding, "If we pick someone who's running now, it's a pre-emptive decision. It's kind of odd. I'm not sure what the best decision is."

The what-to-do-now answers from council and mayoral candidates are wide-ranging, though all who commented on Strom's tenure said he was a stalwart on issues ranging from transportation to green development.

Fellow councilman and mayoral candidate Matt Czajkowski said that it's "clear and unequivocal" that the slot should go to a fifth-place finisher, but added that some decision-makers don't share his view.

"My impression is that it is a conclusion which is being considered broadly. I hear arguments for perhaps taking a different approach, and it is clearly an imperfect outcome, but we live in an imperfect world."

Mayoral candidate Augustus Cho is the only candidate thus far to question Strom's motives, saying he chose "technicality over morality" in not leaving in time to make room on the ballot. Cho wants leaders to amend the town ordinance and allow voters to choose five candidates. Failing that, Cho wants the fifth candidate accepted in a four-seat race.

Jim Merritt, who was appointed to the council last fall after the death of Bill Thorpe, is running for election. Merritt said the vacancy should go to whoever takes fifth.

He opposes appointing a replacement in this case, given the differences, including the circumstances of the vacancy. And when Merritt was appointed, there were only 10 months left in Thorpe's term, not two years.

Penny Rich, who is running for council, released a statement saying she won't apply for Strom's seat. "It is important to me that I win a seat on the town council by a democratic vote," it reads.

Candidate Jon Dehart said he'd push for appointment if he finishes fifth, while incumbent Laurin Easthom initially said that she favored a fifth-place appointment, but would not accept it if she finished in that position. She has since changed her stance and wants to consult with the full council.

Joe Capowski, who served as a councilman from 1991 to 1999, says the council should act swiftly. In his first term, two council members, Joe Herzenberg and Roosevelt Wilkerson, stepped down. In the subsequent election, the top four finishers filled the four open seats; the fifth- and sixth-place finishers filled the vacancies and finished the final two years of each term.

"That was time we should have spent on government issues or the actual activities of the town council," Capowski recalls, noting that it takes five votes to take council action, regardless of how many seats are filled.

"Based on that history, that's why I have the opinion that now the town council should hurry up and make its appointment and get back to full strength."

Asked who he'd like to see replace Strom, Capowski replied, "I would hope they'd find a Bill Strom clone. I know that's not exactly possible."

So, too, is it hard to duplicate the quandary he's left behind.

Disclosure: Bill Strom is married to Indy Food Editor Jen Strom.

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