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Carrboro's passionate politics yield new board member

If you want a taste of just how passionate and involved local politics can be, take a look at Carrboro. Last week, the Board of Aldermen appointed Dan Coleman to the board to replace Mark Chilton, who was elected mayor in November. Coleman's appointment was the result of a messy public process that entailed extensive public interviews and two nights' worth of open-meeting debate. During it all, political junkies followed the action on local blog orangepolitics.org, with observers--several of whom have recently been candidates themselves--posting observations from both the Town Hall chambers and their living rooms.

At a time when viable progressive candidates are rare in most Triangle communities, Carrboro overflows with knowledgeable, qualified candidates for municipal office. Last November, six candidates ran for three seats on the board while two sitting aldermen, Chilton and Alex Zaffron, went head to head in the mayor's race. There were 12 applicants for Chilton's seat, including three who had run in the fall. In Orange County, politics is not just a spectator sport.

A meeting on Jan. 31 was supposed to conclude with a new alderman being sworn in but ended in a 3-3 tie between Coleman, a longtime activist and columnist for TheChapel Hill Herald (and occasional Indy writer), and Lydia Lavelle, an attorney and dean for student services at N.C. Central University, who used to work for the city of Durham's parks and recreation department. Like outgoing Mayor Mike Nelson, Lavelle is active in the gay and lesbian community and political groups such as Equality NC.

More discussion followed Wednesday night, with an apparent deadlock that was broken when newly elected member Randee Haven-O'Donnell changed her vote from Lavelle to Coleman after there was a suggestion that members drop Coleman and Lavelle and go to their second-choice picks.

"Entrenching ourselves in gridlock was counterproductive to what we needed to do," Haven-O'Donnell explains, "and so in the interest of the greater good for Carrboro, I saw it as critical that we seize the moment as we were still talking about our top two choices. We needed to demonstrate flexibility and move on, and I think we have."

"It was pretty intense," Coleman says of the experience. "It was very hard particularly for the board members who were having trouble working through that impasse. I'm sure it was tense for Lydia as well as myself, sitting through it and not really knowing what was going to happen." The appointment will last two years, so if Coleman wants to keep the job, he'll have to run in November 2007.

To some, the complicated and time-consuming process of choosing a new alderman seemed like a fiasco. But Chilton doesn't see it that way. "The thing that's frustrating to me about that critique is that people want it to be public and open, and not some kind of backroom deal. And it was open and it was public and it was messy. Messiness and openness go hand in hand. I think it was good that it was complex, that it wasn't easy. I can understand if some people don't necessarily like the results, but as far as the process, I thought it was good."

"It was a very weighty process at that point," Haven-O'Donnell says, "and it was tough, and I think the community understood what a tough decision it was."

The issue that loomed largest over the alderman selection process was discontent among approximately 800 residents of recently annexed areas in the northern part of town, who complain that they have been poorly represented and poorly served by the town while contributing to its tax base. Katrina Ryan, a candidate in November who ran on that issue, had urged the board to select her outright since she was the fourth-place vote-getter in November. She was joined by several other annexees in applying for Chilton's seat. Among them, Lavelle was the only one who fit snugly into Carrboro's political culture, says Chilton. "There were lots of qualified applicants, but there were fewer who would be described as liberal or progressive Democrats."

The annexation issue isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Haven-O'Donnell says she hopes Lavelle and applicant Alena Callimanis, another annexee, will be active in a task force addressing the area's concerns.

Adding more excitement to the political scene, this week former Carrboro mayor Mike Nelson announced plans to run for the Board of Orange County Commissioners. Nelson was mayor for 10 years--winning five elections--before retiring last year. Nelson is popular in Chapel Hill and Carrboro; his appeal in the northern part of the county is still untested. Assuming that incumbents Alice Gordon, Steve Halkiotis and Barry Jacobs run again, the election this May could be tight.

Nelson says on his recently launched campaign Web site that environmental concerns are his greatest motivation. "The support of the current county commissioners for extending water and sewer lines into the Rural Buffer is one of the main reasons I have decided to run. The Rural Buffer, separating Chapel Hill/Carrboro from the rest of the county, is one of Orange County's greatest assets. We should cherish it and seek to protect it at all costs," he says.

"We could be gearing up for a pretty serious horse race here," Chilton says. "The three incumbents in there have been on the board for a long time, and they all have strong constituencies. I think it could be a tough race for all of them. Mike's going to have to run a real race, and it's been at least eight years since this group has faced such serious competition. Without regards to the question of how good or not of a county commissioner the three incumbents have been, my question is how those old campaign skills are."

  • Carrboro's passionate politics yield new board member

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