A yearlong vacancy in the Chapel Hill Town Council might not be filled until November 2021 or even May 2022.
Former council member Rachel Schaevitz resigned in January 2020 to move to New Zealand, and her seat has been vacant since then. As the council currently stands, there are eight council member positions as opposed to the typical nine. The vacancy is projected to be resolved during the next municipal election.
Municipal elections are set to take place in November, but a recommendation from Karen Brinson Bell, the director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, could push them back to May 2022.
Although the council debated permanently reducing the number of council members to eight, Mayor Pam Hemminger said the Town's attorney informed the council at a February retreat that they wouldn't be able to reduce the number before the upcoming election. She said that would have to occur in a year where a municipal election does not occur.
"We couldn’t do it for this election cycle; it has to be done in an off year," she said.
While the council has experienced some change in their numbers in the past, this is one of the longest standing vacancies in its history.
Although the Town Charter provides for the filling of a vacant seat, a decision to fill the seat was delayed because of the onset of the pandemic last March and the subsequent 2020 presidential election.
Hemminger and other council members said a key facet in determining whether to reduce the number of seats or fill the vacancy was public input, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, any program of public participation was not able to occur.
“COVID hasn’t changed my opinion about that, but I do think it’s important to hear from the public before committing to anything or before I could make up my mind completely, so COVID has meant that we can’t get the public input I think we need to make that choice,” council member Jessica Anderson said in an email.
Anderson said the vacancy hasn't posed a lot of difficulties for the council.
“Generally, things have been the same," Anderson said in the email. "We haven’t had any issues where we got hung up."
But council member Amy Ryan said in an email that the vacancy has required the council to divide up work that would normally be predetermined among the nine members, like board and committee liaison jobs.
Gerry Cohen is a former council member and current adjunct instructor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University who, during his tenure in the 1970s, advocated for an increase in the number of council members.
“In 1975, I was the person who pushed for a charter change to increase it from six to eight, which certainly represented my position 45 years ago,” Cohen said.
He said his position was influenced by a need for greater diversity and representation on the council.
Ryan said she thinks the current council reflects diversity among many different categories like race, sexual orientation and age.
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