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The Chapel Hill Town Council encourages civic engagement for UNC students

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger at a previous Chapel Hill Town Council meeting at the Chapel Hill Public Library on Wednesday, Feb.12, 2020.

Local government provides basic services that keep the town functional. 

It is in charge of everything from public safety and transportation to parks and housing, just to name a few. In Chapel Hill, the governing body is the Chapel Hill Town Council. 

Chapel Hill Town Council Member Michael Parker said people may not interact with government employees or officials everyday, but they do interact with the services everyday. 

“I think that in terms of where the rubber meets the road, the very day-to-day pieces of all of our lives, we are interacting with things the town government does every day,” Parker said.

How many members are on the Chapel Hill Town Council? 

The council currently consists of Mayor Pam Hemminger and seven Town Council members. There are normally nine seats on the council, but after former Council Member Rachel Schaevitz resigned in January, the council left the seat vacant and is still deciding whether to reduce the council to seven members or appoint a new one

How can students get involved? 

If students want to get involved or voice their concern or support for an issue, there are many ways to do so, such as contacting council members by phone or email. Students can also show up to council meetings, which are being held virtually on Zoom for the foreseeable future and take place on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. each month. 

Students can sign up on the town's website to speak on any issue, whether it's on the agenda or not.  

If students want to take their civic involvement a step further, they can apply for any empty seats on the town’s 18 advisory boards, which work with and provide feedback to the Council on a variety of issue areas. They meet about once a month and no experience is necessary. Applications are open year-round.

Council Member Tai Huynh, a recent UNC graduate, was elected to Council in 2019.

“I remember saying this a lot on the campaign trail,” Huynh said. “As young people and as students, we talk a lot about the change we want to see. This (local government) is where students and young people can really have a huge impact on communities.”

Lastly, another simple way to get involved is by voting. Council Member Allen Buansi said voter turnout in local elections is really low, but that’s where students can make a lot of difference.

“Your vote matters,” Buansi said. “I would just encourage folks, no matter what the election is, to always come out and vote.”

What are the council members' goals for the Town?    

Each council member has their individual goals for the town, but increasing affordable housing is one that most council members agree on. 

For Council Member Karen Stegman, she said it is important for people to think about housing in terms of “the whole continuum of need” and to see how homelessness and affordable housing is connected.

The Council created an Affordable Housing Dashboard so the community can keep track of how they are doing and what projects they are working on.

“One of Chapel Hill’s mottos is a place for everyone, but if a large portion of the people who work here and contribute to Chapel Hill being such a great place can't afford to live here, then we're not really being that equitable, welcoming community that we like to think we are,” Stegman said.

Another goal council members said they have is increasing diversity in Chapel Hill advisory boards and bringing a stronger racial equity lens to the council's decision-making processes. 

"One of my biggest goals is trying to get an ordinance passed or a policy that requires the town to do a racial equity impact analysis on issues that come before the council," Huynh said. "So that before the council makes a decision, they have hard data on how their decision could potentially disproportionately impact communities of color.”

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How do local governments differ from state governments? 

While the council is in control of many issues that impact our daily life, Hemminger said she hasn’t been able to do as much as she wants because North Carolina is not a home-rule state, so local governments only have as much power as given to them by the state’s General Assembly.

“That's been very frustrating for our community as we want to do more things with civil rights and equity and those kinds of things, but we can only do what the state allows us to do,” Hemminger said.

At the end of the day, Hemminger said she wanted to send students the message that we are all one community.

“We know that some of them will only be here for four years and some will be here for much longer,” Hemminger said. “We try to make sure that we are communicating with each other on a regular basis, but also hearing their perspective on what makes this community successful and equitable.”

@kecarpenter1 | @DTHCityState

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