CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the years Amy Ryan ran for Chapel Hill Town Council. Ryan ran in 2013. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
UNC Young Democrats hosted a panel for Chapel Hill Town Council and mayoral candidates Tuesday night, allowing candidates to share positions and respond to questions from students on topics ranging from climate change on the local level to the relationship between the citizens and the student population.
The issue of voter engagement and the potential barriers to getting constituents out to vote came up repeatedly among candidates. Incumbent Mayor Pam Hemminger said she wishes more students voted.
"Students were the biggest group not to come out and vote in the 2016 elections, and it was just devastating to us," she said.
The four incumbent candidates up for re-election include Mayor Pam Hemminger and council members Michael Parker, Jessica Anderson and Nancy Oates. Challengers to the incumbents for Town Council positions include UNC senior Tai Huynh, Renuka Soll, Sue Hunter and Amy Ryan, while Josh Levenson stands as the sole challenger to Hemminger in the mayoral race.
“We’ve gotten a lot accomplished, I think, as a group,” Parker said. “No council member gets anything done by themselves. You’ve got to work together, and I think we’ve been an effective council. I know I certainly have worked hard to build relationships with my colleagues so we can get things done.”
When asked about his plans to confront the issue of affordable housing, Parker said the $10 million bond passed last year, which provided for developing 400 affordable housing units over the next five years, was evidence of the council's progress in the area.
Parker said working with partners like Habitat for Humanity was crucial to help bring cost per unit down to build as many units as possible with the allocated bond funds.
Other Town Council members said they agreed and talked about the progress made in other fields.
Anderson said progress had been made between students and the rest of the Chapel Hill community through the Good Neighbor Initiative and the shared bus system, but also recognized that more remains to be done.
Soll, a Chapel Hill resident of 15 years who has served previously as president, treasurer and secretary of the PTA at her children’s schools, said she thinks steps should be taken to address current tensions between UNC students and town residents. She said when she was a graduate student in Chicago, she took a class in which students worked to solve issues in the community. Soll said this experience helped foster a mutual relationship between students and the community, and suggested the University adopt a similar format.
Considering Chapel Hill’s immigrant and refugee population, who make up 16.5% of the 59,000 residents, Oates said one of the most important things to do is to normalize immigration, something achieved by welcoming immigrants to town without requiring social security numbers to apply for public housing.
Hemminger said her original reason for running four years ago stemmed from her fear of Chapel Hill becoming a “bedroom community,” full of residential housing. Hemminger said she wants to maintain focus on this issue by increasing the commercial tax base, which can continue to create job and internship opportunities and encourage individuals to remain in the town.
The other candidates seeking to unseat the incumbents said they would seek to change the town's climate and transportation policies.
Levenson said he supported an increased presence of bike lanes in town to combat both environmental and transportation issues the town faces. Levenson also said he thinks the council lacked the courage to raise funds to support local municipalities’ efforts to address issues like climate change.
In light of recent incidents with assault in Chapel Hill, Hunter said compassion was important, and cited her nine years of experience working with rape crisis centers and low-resource, marginalized populations as the kind of compassion the Town Council needed.
Ryan, who ran for Town Council in 2013, has 16 years of experience serving on Chapel Hill advisory committees, talked about the value of her land-planning experience and knowledge of Chapel Hill as important assets she could bring to the Council as the town continues to grow.
Huynh ended the evening saying the pursuit of racial equity needed to be top among the Town Council's priorities moving forward.
“We need to institutionalize racial equity and, growing up in a refugee, low-income household, my parents worked 80 hours a week to sustain our household,” Huynh said. “I think that is an underrepresented and needed perspective on our Town Council.”
Early voting for Orange County and Chatham County begins on Oct. 16, but all voting sites open on the Oct. 19.
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