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Bell appointed to Chapel Hill council

BY KIRK ROSS, Staff Writer

CHAPEL HILL — Northside resident Donna Bell was appointed to the Chapel Hill Town Council Monday night, ending months of speculation and debate over how best to fill a vacancy created by Bill Strom’s abrupt resignation in August.

Bell, a member of the town’s planning board, was chosen on a 6-2 vote at a special council meeting at Town Hall. Matt Pohlman, the fifth-place finisher in this fall’s race for four seats on the town council, won the votes of council member Matt Czajkowski and newly elected council member Gene Pease.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt was joined by council members Laurin Easthom, Sally Greene, Ed Harrison, Penny Rich and Jim Ward in supporting Bell.

Several council members said they thought Bell, who is African-American, would fulfill an important role in representing her neighborhood and the town’s minority population. Jim Merritt, the council’s only African-American, did not win election this fall to the seat he was appointed to following the death of council member Bill Thorpe in September 2008.

In an interview Tuesday evening, Bell said the decision and her obligations are sinking in.

“I feel both honored and nervous,” she said. “I know it was a difficult decision for folks to make.”

Bell said she was a little concerned that since the town saw such a divide during the recent campaign, some might be quick to judge how she will feel about an issue.

“I’m very slow to take sides,” she said. “I’m usually the person asking questions.”

Maintaining the town’s quality of life, especially downtown as it grows, will be a focus, she said, adding that she expects to fill the role of “clarifyer” in discussions on growth involving Northside and other downtown residential areas.

“With all the talk of increasing residents downtown,” she said, “it’s important to remember that residential areas in downtown have always existed.”

Kleinschmidt said Tuesday he is delighted to see Bell named and the lengthy wait to fill the vacancy over.

“I’m grateful to have it behind us,” he said. “I think the council handled it in a reasoned and respectful way and I’m pretty excited about the council we have seated.

The council vacancy and what to do about it was not without controversy, including the timing. Strom’s resignation, which came after the close of filing season, meant that the vacancy would not be added to the fall ballot and the previous council ultimately rejected a timetable proposed by outgoing mayor Kevin Foy to name a replacement prior to the seating of a new council. Kleinschmidt and Czajkowski, whom he narrowly defeated in the mayor’s race, both advocated for letting the new council decide the outcome.

At Monday’s meeting, Czajkowski and Pease advocated for selecting the fifth-place finisher in the election.

Pease said he was deeply disappointed over Strom’s timing.

“I believe strongly, the voters should have made this decision,” he said.

Czajkowski noted he had been a strong advocate for picking the fifth-place finisher since August. He said many people are angry over not being able to decide the vacancy in the election and advocated for choosing Pohlman as a way of responding to those concerns saying:

“In one fell swoop, we will have said to those people convincingly, through our actions, that their concerns in that regard have been allayed,” Czajkowski said.

Council member Sally Green said she understood the impulse to choose the fifth-place finisher, but felt that the council was lacking without African-American representation.

She advocated for Bell, saying she was a sound choice because of the need for representation and a conduit for concerns for the black community and because of Bell’s experience.

“I believe she has the competency to jump in and be an effective council member,” Greene said.

New council member Penny Rich said that like other council members, she has heard a wide range of opinions on the choice.

She said while most opinions were reasoned, she found one email stating that a woman with a young child should not be on a governing body to be sexist and offensive. She noted that the standard was not applied to the men with young children who applied to serve.

Bell has a one-year-old daughter.

“Not only is she an African-American,” Rich said, “she’s a woman, she’s a mother . . . she’s very competent, she has a master’s degree; she is smart. I think she will bring a voice and a face to this council that we need at this time.”

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