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After one of Chapel Hill’s newest committees failed to recruit a public housing representative, some residents are pointing out a lack of diversity in town politics.

The Central West Focus Area Steering Committee — which plans ideas for the town’s central-west region — recently had a vacant seat that the Chapel Hill Town Council hoped to fill with a public housing resident.

When no one from that community applied, the council decided to leave the position unfilled.
Amy Ryan, a committee member, said she was disappointed by the lack of applicants.

“It’s an important voice,” Ryan said. “There is a lot of public housing in the central-west area so it would be great to have a representative at meetings to help us make decisions.”

Ruby Sinreich, founder of the blog, said she was not surprised that no one applied.

“These people don’t have a history of being engaged,” she said. “Why would we expect them to jump up to join the committee?”

In her more than 20 years working with local government, Sinreich said she has seen very little done to increase diversity in boards and committees.

“The goal should be broader participation in local government,” she said. “But in 20 years, I haven’t seen them do much of anything towards that goal.”

Sinreich said there are many ways to bring a more diverse group of residents into local decision-making.

“They can educate people on how boards impact their lives, publicly broadcast opportunities to serve and maybe reformat meetings so people with jobs and kids can still participate,” she said.

She cited the transportation board as an example of a decision-making body that poorly reflects residents.

“If you look at the board, it doesn’t look like the same people you see out riding the bus,” Sinreich said.

Ryan said she too thinks the town could prioritize diversity, but she acknowledged that it is more a practical issue than anything else.

“The town is obviously not against diversity,” she said. “It’s just a problem of time and money.”

Town Council member Donna Bell agreed that resources are the only roadblock to increasing diversity — a goal she thinks is important considering how many committees are comprised mostly of white males.

“We have the same problem as a lot of other towns when it comes to diversity,” she said. “To actually have diversity you need to cultivate candidates and build relationships.”

But she believes the town’s latest comprehensive plan, Chapel Hill 2020, places a strong emphasis on diversity.

“We hired someone to specifically do outreach,” Bell said. “They will be going to different groups to engage a wide variety of people in government.”

And Kevin Hicks, one of two black members of the Community Policing Advisory Committee, said he thinks the key is to engage outsiders.

“I got involved in CPAC because I was referred by a member of another committee I was on,” he said. “Unless you’re plugged into the town and its activities, you won’t even be aware of opportunities to get involved.”

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