Why they went with Bell, the logic Chapel Hill used to replace Strom | News
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why they went with Bell, the logic Chapel Hill used to replace Strom

Posted by on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 6:08 PM

The eight elected members of the Chapel Hill Town Council used varying rationale Monday in ultimately tapping Donna Bell to join their ranks. Bell, an African American with experience on town boards, now is slated to complete the final two years of Bill Strom's term. Here's a breakdown of who said what in the order they said it and how they each arrived at their decisions:

Gene Pease

Pease, who earned a scant 203 votes more that fifth-place finisher Matt Pohlman, said he consulted dozens, including two former mayors in considering the appointment.

"I started this process to a decision probably the day after I was elected," he said.

He was the first to speak and hit on the theme on the night — this was a decision that would have been better made by voters.

"There's no clear path and there's going to be no clear winner," he said upfront.

Pease said he weighed three options: selecting a black person to add diversity to an all-white council, going with the person with the most experience or appointing Pohlman because of the vote totals.

Pease took issue with a letter sent by Michelle Cotton Laws, the president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP,, which he said "basically labeled the council member that doesn't appoint an African American a racist."

He said the color of one's skin shouldn't be the sole factor for an appointment and that he'd spoken to several black leaders who agreed.

Moving on, Pease said Joe Capowski, a councilman from 1991-1999, and Will Raymond, a longtime political activist who failed three times to gain election to a council seat, clearly provided the most experience and service to the town. He said each has more experience and more time put in than the balance of the other candidates. Capowski supported Bell. Raymond finished last in the election.

Neither got Pease's vote. That went to Pohlman.

Pease noted how slim the margin was between his vote total and Pohlamn's. He said no one had given him a compelling argument on why the results would have been different had residents been given five votes in the election instead of four.

"My only logical solution is to try to fill the seat in the way that I think represents the voice of the people, and that is to vote for Matt Pohlman," he said.

Perhaps realizing that he'd probably be in the minority on that, he offered his support to whoever was selected.

Sally Greene

Greene began by stating how undesirable it was to be in the position of appointing someone. She said citizens clearly should have had the ability to vote for five people Nov. 3. Obviously, the current rules didn't allow for that, though.

Greene was the first to support Bell, partly because she didn't agree with the argument of giving it to a fifth-place finisher and also because she felt a black voice was needed on the council.

She said no one could say for sure that Pohlman would have finished fifth if citizens got five votes.           

"I don't think it's provable that Matt would have won he fifth seat," she said.

Gaining diversity was more important to her.

"I do think we would lack something if we didn't have an African American on the council, not because of what we would look like from where you're sitting," she said.

She stressed the importance of the black community having someone who looks like them aboard.

"I've tried my best to reach out, but when we have had an African American on the council, I'm not the person that they seek," she said, adding that competency is also a huge factor and that Bell provided that, too.

Matt Czajkowski

He began with an interesting observation noting that in his two years on the council the last two meetings, those in which the council heard from the applicants and selected one, were the first that council members have been "hesitant to speak."

Czajkowski stuck to his intentions from August, when he said that the seat should go to the fifth place finisher. It just so happened that Pohlman, a candidate who had supported Czajkowski's mayoral bid, was that candidate.

Ironically, as he pointed out, Jim Merritt, the lone African American on the council at the time, also supported appointing whoever finished fifth in August.

The councilman recalled that he was given two main reasons prior to the election for not appointing whoever came fifth. First was that there could be a large disparity between the fourth and fifth place finishers. That wasn't the case with Pohlman and Pease.

Second, was that the incumbents, Laurin Easthom, Ed Harrison and Merritt, decided not to apply for the vacancy. Easthom and Harrison won. Merritt finished sixth. That concern was wiped away, too.

"I see an outcome that makes it a lot easier to conclude that the fifth place finisher should be appointed to the council," he said.

He called the lack of diversity on the council "a compelling issue." Czajkowski voted to appoint Merritt when councilman Bill Thorpe passed away, but said the situation is different this time.

"As we sit here this evening, I think it's much more difficult to reach the conclusion that the vacant seat should be filled by an African American," he said.

Czajkowski favored appointing Pohlman, and said the council could solve the "degree of skepticism in Chapel Hill today regarding the democratic process" by doing so. Diversity could be achieved in 2011 when an African American could campaign as Pohlman did, and win a seat, he said.

Penny Rich

Rich said the election would have been different if Chapel Hillians had five votes. "The outcome for a lot of people might have been different," she said.

She thanks residents for the many e-mails she received, though she took offense to some of them.

"Some of them turned me in the wrong direction," she said. "I felt I was being attacked as a Town Council member instead of having substantial information to deal with," she said.

Rich was upset by e-mails suggesting Bell, a mother of a one-year-old daughter, couldn't serve because of family duties.

"I have to tell you that I am so totally offended by that statement, it is such a sexist statement in this day and age," she said.

"That statement didn't go to any of the men that were candidates for that seat and three of them have children, some of them young children."

Rich's two boys were three and five-years-old when she joined the OWASA board.

The new councilwoman worried about who African Americans would call and how the council could effectively serve them without a black representative.

"I've spent a lot of time on the phone with Donna and not only is she an African American, she's a woman. She's a mother. She's a voice. She's very competent. She has a master's degree. She's smart," Rich said. "I think she will bring a voice and a face to this council that we need at this time."

Laurin Easthom

Easthom echoed Rich, detailing her political career that began when her youngest daughter was four. She also laid out her thinking in order of importance. Here's why she said she voted for Bell:

No. 1 She is well qualified to serve.

No. 2 She has served this town on advisory boards and continues to do so.

No. 3 She has demonstrated her ability to collaborate with colleagues in a cordial way.

No. 4 How wonderful it is to have a smart intelligent woman and mom come to us and offer her service to this town.

"In a nutshell I think she has the experience and demonstrated commitment to serve this community well," Easthom said.

She then took time to explain why she didn't support Pohlman, explaining that choosing the fifth-place finisher would be "abdicating responsibility" to make a tough decision.

"The choice was never a done deal with me. Donna simply came out on top for me," she said.

"This was not a referendum. It was not a poll-driven choice. It was not a choice based on who lost the election. I was elected to make decisions like this."

She went on to say that just as it doesn’t matter who finished first, second, third or fourth, it doesn't matter who came fifth, sixth, seventh or eight. There are only winners and losers, she said.

"Being a fifth place finisher cannot be a prize," she said. "It never was, and it never can be."

She then read an article, in full, from the News & Observer about the lack of female leaders in government.

Jim Ward

Ward, like the others, began by talking about how difficult the decision was to make.

"It's not a mathematical equation where you add up the numbers and it's clear," he said.

He talked about his process, which included, gathering, distilling, reflecting and concluding.

"There's only one position and there are, I guess, six people who will be disappointed of the seven candidates," he said, not accounting for Capowski and Jason Baker who promoted Bell.

Ward said his decision didn’t come down to one thing; rather it's the fact that Bell is black, a woman, a mother and someone who has served the town already that gained his support.

He then tried to explain to Pease why Pohlman might not have won the fifth seat had citizens had five votes, pointing to the factions that developed during the campaign.

"I could envision that a supporter who was in line with our current mayor could have easily been seen as the person who would have gotten the fifth most number of votes had it been available," he said.

At this point four people were in favor of Bell, with two in favor of Pohlman. An applicant needs fives votes to be appointed. Ward, clearly knowing how the others would vote, went ahead and said that he looked forward to serving with Bell "as she joins us on the council."

Ward, up for election in two years, also knew the decision could have ramifications for him down the line.

"I came into this office 10 years ago promising myself that I would not ever make a decision based on the next election, I'm going to make a decision that's the best I think I can make and let the cards fall where they may, and that's what I'm doing tonight," he said.

Ed Harrison

Harrison called Ward's comments inspiring before moving on to his selection. He was the only person other than Pease to mention a candidate not named Bell or Pohlman, though he ultimately went with Bell.

"I want to talk about some of the decision making. I'm not someone who gravitates toward that, but I don't have any choice if I’m going to do the rest of the job here," he began.

He said Durham Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, a longtime friend, told him he had to make tough decisions because he got paid "the big bucks."

"We really don't get paid much for being here and we have lousy decisions, they're hard to make and about the hardest one to make is the one we have tonight," he said, adding later, "It's a hard decision. Someone has to make it. We don't get rewarded much for making it."

He stressed that council members serve everyone, saying that you're called a Durham Commissioner or an Orange County Commissioner, not a "in my case, a council member for people who don't want to drive cars but have to anyway."

"Try as I might, I simply can't credibly represent everyone," he said. "In some cases it's easier. In the case of gender because I'm married to a woman who let's me know what women think, typically her."

He said he weighed experience as well and found four people to be of interest as candidates:

Aaron Shah, who he said has experience with the home trust, working with youth athletics and reminded him of Joe Green, who applied for Thorpe's seat before being elected to the school board.

Will Raymond, who he addressed as a friend. Harrison noted how far the two had come after Raymond ran a fierce campaign against him in 2005.

"I don't think Will wanted to be my friend. I did, but it worked out," he said.

"He has been involved to a point of fault, but he's been involved nonetheless, teaching me more and more every time. … I don't know that Will is someone who fits particularly on this council, but he fits in this community."

Pohlman, who attended 17 forums with Harrison during the election cycle, and who Harrison called Sunday, also got a review.

"Matt was not necessarily, based on those forums, in the top four that I would have rated. I would have had myself in there," Harrison said. "Matt, if you havd gotten elected, I would have been happy to work with you, you know that. Everyone at the table knows I work with anybody, as I can."

Last was Donna Bell, who he called a "great woman." Harrison was impressed by Bell's experience on the planning board.

In one of the lighter moments of the night, Harrison said two people who joined the planning board in recent years, Bell and one who sat to his left, impressed him. Pease seemed surprised to get the compliment, "That was me?" he said jokingly to Rich, the other person seated in that direction, before Harrison confirmed.

"I'm glad both were on the planning board, and I hope both can be on the council," he said.

Most notably, though, Harrison said part of his thinking included getting another member who would support his push for sidewalks.

"If you're a guy like me and you like more sidewalks, I started out liking sidewalks because of my mother, and I would like more women on the council to move sidewalks along and everything else they bring to this community," he said.

"I'll be outnumbered on some votes, I'm sure, in the right committee."

Lastly, Bell's race and gender provided "icing on the cake" for Harrison.

Mark Kleinschmidt

Kleinschmidt hoped Bell's service would instill confidence in the decision he was about to make.

He walked through the process.

"I've never been someone who believes that in a four-vote race that the fifth-place person is necessarily entitled to anything," he said. "In this case, certainly entitled to consideration, but not necessarily a seat."

He said people have told him he's been a good representative of minority interests in the past, but that doesn't meet the "test of representation and diversity."

"The question becomes in my mind how approachable are we as a council and individuals to representatives of that community," he said.

Kleinschmidt said he would always approach the person who was the most like him before he was elected, and in some cases, that meant going outside of town for advice.

He then stated many of the things that the five who agreed with him had already gone through in detail, Bell's race, gender and experience.

Then came the vote. No surprises. 6-2 for Bell. 

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