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Chapel Hill Town Council considers reducing number of members, extending mayoral term


Incumbent Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger is photographed outside her campaign party at City Kitchen on Nov. 5, 2019.  Hemminger is running for her third term as Mayor of Chapel Hill.

The Chapel Hill Town Council considered filling its upcoming vacancy, reducing the number of members on council and extending the mayoral term from two to four years at its weekend retreat. 

After council member Rachel Schaevitz announced her intent to resign her seat, the council began to discuss possibly appointing someone for the remainder of her term. Former council member Nancy Oates said she would apply for the seat, while Schaevitz said she wanted to appoint someone who may not have the resources to run a campaign. 

But at its retreat on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, Mayor Pam Hemminger and the council discussed possibly using the vacancy to reduce the number of members on council from nine to seven.

“Some cities have now reduced to seven because their meetings were going so long and because they just felt it was better in communicating with everybody on council," Hemminger said. 

In addition to the possibility of shorter meetings, council members said reducing their numbers may save resources and streamline communication. But council member Tai Huynh said these benefits are not unique to reducing the number of council members.

“A lot of the internal benefits you’re mentioning about reducing the size of council — we don’t necessarily need to reduce the size of council to achieve those,” Huynh said.

Chapel Hill Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said if the council wanted to reduce the number of members, it would need to petition the General Assembly or pass a town ordinance. But if the town ordinance were to pass, Chapel Hill residents would be able to petition for a referendum. 

“Given where we are on the calendar and what the law says about the process to do this all to have the ordinances and the public hearings and all these opportunities, the referendum — if you decide to have it or if the citizens require you to have it — could not be held until the general election in November," Karpinos said.

A citizen petition would need to get a number of signatures equal to 10 percent of the amount of registered voters in last year's general election. Alternatively, the council could choose to hold a referendum on its own without the residents asking it to. But Karpinos said if a referendum were to be called, it would have to coincide with the election in November of this year.

Council member Allen Buansi said reducing the number of members and filling the vacancy should be treated as separate issues. 

“One question is, do we go down to seven?" he said. "Another question is: what do we do with the vacancy?" 

Karpinos told the council that while it is required to start the process of filling the vacancy left by Schaevitz, there is no required deadline, meaning it could leave the seat open until the next election in November 2021.

“One theory is if you wanted to go down this path, you could leave the vacancy open and see what happens," Karpinos said.

If the seat remains unfilled and a referendum passes, Karpinos said, voters in the next election would only elect two members. In 2023, four seats would be up for election, with the top three vote-getters receiving four-year terms and the candidate with the fourth-most votes getting a two-year term.

In Chapel Hill, town council members are currently elected to four-year terms while the mayoral term is just two years. But Hemminger asked the council to consider changing the length of the mayor’s term to four years, even if the change comes after she's no longer mayor.

Council member Michael Parker emphasized the importance of focusing on benefits to the public and not just benefits to the Town staff.  

“If we want the public to be comfortable with this, we need to also be thinking about the external benefits," he said.

Hemminger pointed out that reducing the number of members could be used to increase the council members' pay. Currently, the salary and benefits for council members come from a collective pot of about $500,000. With fewer people on council, higher salaries could go to each member. 

“It’s also an equity issue,” Hemminger said. “If someone wants to run for council, but they would need to pay for child care and all these other things, then we need to be able to have something that is going to compensate you for your time.”

While the council did not hold any votes at its retreat, members said they would continue to discuss the potential changes to the charter in the coming weeks. Its next regular meeting is Feb. 19 at 7 p.m.


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