Durham City Councilman Howard Clement, a revered civil rights icon and retired attorney, has a résumé like a history book.
He was there in July 1963 when activists helped to integrate Durham's Carolina Theatre during the civil rights movement.
He was there in August 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
He was there in the late 1960s at the formation of Durham's influential Black Solidarity Committee for Community Improvement, an organization that once commandeered a selective buying campaign aimed at white businesses to pressure civil rights reforms.
He was there in April 1968 when Durham seethed with reactions, both violent and peaceful, to King's Memphis assassination.
He was there as a helping hand for organizations like the NAACP as well as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and more.
And he was there upon his appointment to the City Council in May 1983, where he emerged of late as an outspoken advocate for a city-county government merger and public transit. The span of 29 years makes him the longest-serving council member in Durham history.
Clement represents Ward 2, which includes parts of East and Southeast Durham, but City Council candidates are elected by all city voters.
But since late November, the ailing Clement has not been there—in Council Chambers—vexed by a publicly unidentified illness that limits his mobility. He last attended a meeting on Nov. 7.
"It is a condition that has been disabling me," Clement said last week. "My capacity to move around is really limited."
In that time, Clement has missed 20 meetings over 150 days, including key votes on a public arts project in November, the controversial 751 South development in February and a resolution last week indicating natural gas drilling—better known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking"—should not be legalized until it can be proven safe.
The City Council responded with a resolution in February excusing the bulk of the councilman's missed meetings with the plan to excuse additional absences if necessary. (Disclosure: City Councilman Steve Schewel is president of Carolina Publications, which owns the Indy.)
"He told me he'd like to serve out his term," said Durham Mayor Bill Bell.
Clement reaffirmed last week that he "hopes" to return in May to serve out the remainder of his term, which wraps in 2013.
Clement noted he is not aware of any city rule limiting a member's absences, although, according to city staff, the city's charter bars more than five consecutive unexcused absences.
Once a member has met that mark, the city charter denotes it as "abandonment of the post," Durham City Attorney Patrick Baker said, allowing city leaders to start refilling the office.
Clement has not reached that point because officials, in most cases, have voted to excuse his absence. Baker added that staff is mulling the possibility of remotely connecting Clement via online voice messaging applications like Skype if he can't be physically present for council sessions.
Frayda Bluestein, a local government law expert with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government, said such situations happen occasionally in elected offices, although most municipal or county governments are not endowed with much power to force a change if the member goes AWOL.
"It can be very frustrating to a board," Bluestein said. "Even if a person is incapacitated, there's nothing in the statute that gives them the authority to do anything."
Bluestein said local government panels typically have no authority to sanction a board member unless that power is included in their original charter.
The N.C. General Assembly could remove an elected official in unusual circumstances or grant the authority to local government, she said.
In most cases, the responsibility falls to the elected official to make a decision. "Obviously if a person is ill and can't serve any more, that person can resign," Bluestein said.
According to city records, a Durham City Council member last resigned in December 1991 when Clarence Brown stepped down after allegedly requesting and receiving reimbursements from the city and N.C. Central University, where he was a professor, for the same expenses.
Meanwhile, council leaders are not expecting Clement to resign. Bell said he believes the council has proceeded without the absent councilman. The mayor declined to comment on what Clement should do if he cannot return soon.
"That's a personal matter," Bell said. "I wouldn't have that kind of discussion in the public."
Councilman Eugene Brown commended Clement as a good council member, but he added that the burden is on Clement to recover and return. "I'm not going to tell Howard what to do," Brown said. "That's not my job. I go back to the grassroots. This is a district seat and if his constituents are that concerned about his absence, then they need to go to him and tell him that."
Billy Ball is a new staff writer at the Indy.