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Chapel Hill women sought for council replacement 

Public transit, future development and the county landfill will be key topics for the Chapel Hill Town Council in late 2012, but it faces another pressing decision: Who should replace Councilwoman Penny Rich?

Rich is expected to step down in late November or early December to join the Orange County Board of Commissioners. Town Council, which typically breaks for the bulk of December, isn't likely to name a replacement until January.

Council members say potential candidates would have a variety of qualifications, although some say the most pressing demand could be that they find a woman for the job.

After Rich leaves, there will be just two women, Laurin Easthom and Donna Bell, on the nine-member council.

"I'm assuming there will be pressure," said longtime Chapel Hill Councilman Ed Harrison. "I can't imagine there wouldn't be."

Rich, the owner of a local catering service, has held the seat since 2009, serving as an outspoken voice on public transportation and the aging county landfill.

Upon Rich's resignation, town leaders should make an official announcement of the opening and begin accepting applications.

Several people have already expressed interest in the job, including George Cianciolo, a Duke University associate research professor who co-chaired development of Chapel Hill 2020, the town's long-term planning statement approved this year.

Also in the mix is Maria Palmer, a former teacher and state Board of Education member who co-chaired Chapel Hill 2020's transportation committee.

Cianciolo and Palmer both confirmed their interest in the appointment, along with two-time Town Council candidate Jon DeHart, a Wells Fargo mortgage lender.

Palmer, who grew up in Guatemala and Peru but has resided in Chapel Hill for more than 16 years, said that while her background as an immigrant woman would offer her a unique perspective on the council, leaders should choose a new council member based on a number of qualifications.

"I think the council should be looking to defend the rights of women and listen to their experiences," she said. "I believe I can contribute to that, but I don't think it should be the only criteria."

DeHart agrees. "I think we should appoint the person that's going to do the best job for the town," he said. "We do have diversity in this town and that's something that should be considered, but we should find what's best for the town regardless of gender."

Software engineer Will Raymond, a frequent critic of high-density development who has run three unsuccessful council campaigns, said he will consider applying for Rich's seat, too.

Thus far, there's no apparent organized effort to lobby Town Council to replace Rich with another woman, but many political observers believe it is coming.

In a July posting on the progressive local news blog Orange Politics, Leah Josephson—staffer at the women's advocacy organization Lillian's List of NC—noted the prospect of a Chapel Hill Town Council with just two female members.

"It's embarrassing that a municipal government we proudly consider to be a model for progressivism in our state could possibly have the same gender breakdown as our backward-thinking General Assembly," Josephson wrote.

Lillian's List typically focuses on electing progressive women to the N.C. General Assembly, but Executive Director Carol Teal said the group also backs women leaders at the local level. Teal said Lillian's List recruits potential statewide candidates from the local offices.

"We always look to Chapel Hill as being the standard-bearer in many, many things," Teal said. "It's surprising that there's going to be only two out of nine after Penny leaves."

Councilman Lee Storrow said his priority will be finding a "proactive" new council member—regardless of gender—willing to take on tough issues, although he said the gender disparity on the council must be considered as well.

"It's about the neighborhood they live in, the work that they've done in the community, and other different backgrounds that really inform the council," he said. "By the end of the day, too, I think something doesn't feel right about a council in Chapel Hill that only has two out of nine members women."

Councilman Jim Ward says he expects there will be demands for leaders to select a woman, but he says the opportunity should be extended to all. "I understand where people are coming from who have that point of view," Ward said. "But I think it's more important that we get the right person more than we just consider half of the world."

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