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A look at what this fall's municipal elections mean for Chapel Hill residents, local politics

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The Chapel Hill Town Hall is pictured on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

This November's municipal elections will have four seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council, along with the Chapel Hill mayoral seat, up for grabs.

The Chapel Hill Town Council is made up of nine members, including the mayor, who serves a two-year term. The other eight members serve staggered four-year terms, which means there is an opportunity for turnover on the council every two years.

The Town Council has formal meetings on Wednesdays three times every month, except in July and August. 

Regular meetings start at 7 p.m. and may run as late as midnight, Chapel Hill Mayor pro tem Karen Stegman said. In those meetings, the council often talks about land use, community safety and makes decisions about proposed developments, she said. 

“We are squeezing around other responsibilities with family and jobs," she said. "On any given day we could be attending a Town board meeting — we have close to 20 different advisory community advisory boards, and council members serve as liaisons. So, we could be sitting in on affordable housing board or planning commission meeting or environmental or parks board meeting. We could be attending meetings with constituents or with downtown businesses, community groups.”

Chapel Hill Town Council members guide policy and planning to help set the vision and goals of the Town, she said. 

Current Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, who announced that she will not be seeking re-election on July 19, said Chapel Hill residents would be surprised at how much time council members commit to their roles.

“It’s interesting because there’s so many different categories of things that we do that I’m not sure people are aware of,” she said. “Everything from stormwater to transit to affordable housing to parks and rec, library, arts and culture. There are just so many areas that you have to learn about when you’re a council member.”

Hemminger said Town Council members help with different community events, such as Habitat for Humanity builds, neighborhood gatherings and working with the Inter-Faith Council. 

Alexander Sahn, an assistant professor of political science at UNC, said local governments tend to receive far less attention than state governments and the federal government.

“People tend to think of local governments as an apolitical forum where people are just fixing potholes and running buses and delivering services to people,” he said. "But there’s actually quite a lot of ideological difference.”

He also said a lot of people don’t know about their local elected officials, and what they do day-to-day, which can make it difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable. 

Sahn said local governments in the U.S. tend to oversee three main policy areas: housing and development, education and public safety.

He said concerns about homelessness, housing affordability and issues around policing flow from decisions that local governments make.

“Issues around education, what types of content around race and gender are taught in schools, which books are banned, whether or not schools should have reopened as quickly or as slowly as they did during COVID, all of these were made on school district by school district basis,” he said. 

He said although students might only live in Chapel Hill for four years, Town policy still has a major impact on their lives.

Hemminger said municipal election turnout in Chapel Hill is typically 15-18 percent. She said the population voting does not fully represent the community. 

“It’s really skewed towards people who have time to vote, and who are older, and so we want to make sure we have more voices,” she said.


@DTHCityState | 

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Lucy Marques

Lucy Marques is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She was previously a city & state senior writer. Lucy is a junior pursuing a double major in political science and Hispanic literatures and cultures.

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