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The council's vote hinted at divisions within the group.

Donna Bell appointed to Chapel Hill Town Council over Matt Pohlman 

A sticky political wicket

click to enlarge Donna Bell
  • Donna Bell

Five months after former Chapel Hill Town Councilman Bill Strom quit his job and vamoosed, the problem of what to do with his seat finally has a resolution: By a vote of 6-2, Chapel Hill Town Council appointed Donna Bell as its newest member Monday night. Yet the council's vote also hinted at divisions within the group.

Councilmen Matt Czajkowski and Gene Pease supported Matt Pohlman, a "pro-business" candidate who ran for election in November on many of their same issues. He finished fifth in a contest for four seats.

The six other council members, all of whom attended newly elected Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt's victory celebration—he defeated Czajkowski by 106 votes—went with Bell, who did not run for office in November. An African-American and a veteran of town boards, she now is been charged with finishing the final two years of Strom's term.

click to enlarge Donna Bell and her husband, Jason James, following her appointment to Chapel Hill Town Council - PHOTO BY JOE SCHWARTZ
  • Photo by Joe Schwartz
  • Donna Bell and her husband, Jason James, following her appointment to Chapel Hill Town Council

Bell, a resident of the historically black Northside neighborhood and a mother of a 1-year-old, put her palms to her face as the appointment vote became final, her husband curling his arm around her.

"I'll do my best to serve the whole community, but especially the African-American community because I think those voices need to be heard at the table," Bell said afterward.

Bell will be sworn in at the council's next business meeting, Jan. 7, and plans to run in 2011 to keep the seat. Affordable housing and the town's budget will be her top priorities, she said. Also key will be gaining acceptance from Pohlman's supporters, including many who have flooded the council with e-mails and petitions. "I think that the people who supported Matt Pohlman are strong supporters of a strong and healthy Chapel Hill, and I'll do everything I can to help create a strong and healthy Chapel Hill," Bell said.

Unlike Bell, who was flanked by husband Jason James, and mayoral aide Mark McCurry in the third row, Pohlman sat alone in the front as he listened to six council members explain why his 3,612 votes didn't guarantee him the appointment, despite being only 203 ballots short of victory.

He felt discouraged by the results, more so than on election night, he said.

"Losing an election is surprisingly easy for someone as competitive as myself to take. It's such a clean and pure process—one citizen, one vote," he said. "An appointment process is not that simple."

The votes were stacked against Pohlman. Seven applicants for the seat made pitches to the council Dec. 9, with two, Jason Baker and Joe Capowski, supporting Bell.

Bell said she spoke privately to every Town Council member prior to the appointment decision. Only four council members contacted Pohlman. He met with Councilman Jim Ward and spoke on the phone with council members Ed Harrison and Sally Greene. Pease left a voice mail, Pohlman said. He was "disheartened" not to have heard from other council members, although he made his views known in the 17 candidate forums he participated in during the election season.

Since being confronted with the decision, council members have agreed that Strom's seat would have been better filled through a public election. But that wasn't possible because of the timing of Strom's resignation two weeks after the deadline to place his seat on the Nov. 3 ballot. As a consequence, people could cast four votes, but there were five open seats.

Kleinschmidt suggested the council consider crafting new rules to deal with similar situations in the future, which Bell said she also supports.

Pease, who finished fourth in November, was the strongest critic of the process. "I believe Bill Strom's legacy won't be the stuff that was in that resolution last week," he said, referencing the "thank-you" document the council approved when it was sworn in Dec. 7. "Rather, it's him somehow trying to manipulate this decision. I believe strongly the citizens should have voted on this."

Czajkowski had advocated for the fifth-place finisher as early as August and supported binding the council to that decision in advance of Election Day. Pease and Czajkowski said appointing Pohlman would come the closest to a proper public vote. 

Other council members noted there was no guarantee that Pohlman would have garnered fifth place had citizens been given five votes. Perhaps other candidates would have run, too, they said, or the vote would have gone differently. Also critical to them was Bell's experience on the planning board and the Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force, her gender and her race.

Bell's appointment ensures that the Town Council will have an African-American member, as it has for 56 years. Harrison called it "icing on the cake," while agreeing with the majority of his colleagues that the black community needs representation on council.

Moments before casting his ballot for Bell, Kleinschmidt acknowledged that the appointment process had been politically delicate—and difficult.

"This is not a decision that is going to make everyone happy in the moment we make it," Kleinschmidt said. "We just have to hope that once we make a decision that the service the person provides will be able to dissipate that anger."

  • The council's vote hinted at divisions within the group.

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