"I didn't think they'd be calling my name," said a surprised James Merritt moments after being appointed Chapel Hill's newest Town Councilman.
By an 8-0 vote, the council chose the retired middle school assistant principal from a pool of six candidates at the close of Monday night's meeting.
"I'm honored and excited to have this opportunity to add my voice to the discussion and help Chapel Hill move to where it needs to go," he said shortly after the announcement.
Merritt will serve out the remaining term of Bill Thorpe, who died earlier this year from heart failure. Thorpe had a reputation as a strong advocate for Chapel Hill's black community and was the council's sole African-American member.
"When Bill ran for the council, he made it clear that he would represent the issues of his constituents," Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy said later. "He brought a unique perspective on the council, and that's something that we wanted returned."
According to Foy, it was Merritt's Thorpe-like connection to his community that ultimately persuaded council members to choose him over candidates with more experience in city government. Will Raymond, who has run for Chapel Hill Town Council twice before, has served on a variety of council advisory boards, as has Gene Pease, a former member of the town budget citizen committee.
"All of the other candidates were excellent," said Foy. "There were a broad spectrum of people of not just interests, but of a history of involvement, and so it wasn't easy to say here's the best choice, but our thought was that we should do our best to ensure that there is a person sitting at the table that will approach things the way Bill did."
Merritt, who is black, was backed by both the Chapel Hill/Carrboro branch of the NAACP and a coalition of influential black leaders, the Anderson-Thorpe Breakfast Club, named for Thorpe and the late Carrboro Alderman Hank Anderson.
NAACP chapter President Eugene Farrar, one of Merritt's strongest supporters, congratulated him.
"We understand that sometimes our issues are at the forefront, and sometimes they're not," said Farrar. "But we're going to continue to support him so that he'll have a better understanding of how things are going for his constituents."
Prior to the vote, Merritt watched from the gallery as the council heard presentations on myriad issues facing Chapel Hill, including the future of UNC's Carolina North project and a gloomy financial outlook that will force the council to trim the city's operating budget by at least 5 percent.
Merritt said that his first act on council will be to get up to speed. "There was a lot of information at that meeting," he said. "And I need to get down the nuances of all of these projects, and quickly."
His years as a school administrator will help ease the learning curve, he says. Merritt also plans to pay particular attention to the planned $16 million expansion to the Chapel Hill library. Another of his primary goals will be to help improve public safety and affordable housing, he said.
A bemused Foy warned Merritt about what he'd gotten into: "Just know our meetings only rarely end this quickly."