by Joe Schwartz
CHAPEL HILL — As Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward discussed the particulars of the time limit —what the different colored lights meant, etc. — during Monday night's special Chapel HIll Town Council meeting, Jason Baker, who moderated the Sierra Club's municipal election forum, remarked, "This is quickly becoming as much fun as your forums."
Though Baker was one of seven candidates vying for office, each having applied to fill the remaining two years of resigned Councilman Bill Strom's seat, the meeting set for each of them to make their case took on a distinctly non-forum tone.
Two candidates, including Baker, advocated against themselves. One told his life story. Another said he was conflicted about leaving his name in the applicant pool.
Each of them — Baker, Donna Bell, Joe Capowski, H. Brock Page, Matt Pohlman, Will Raymond and Aaron Shah — had seven minutes to make their case. Some pointed to experience on boards and committees, some to November election totals, and others to racial diversity. The council plans to make its appointment Monday night.
The Chapel Hill planning board member who ran for Town Council unsuccessfully as a UNC student in 2005, said he's be brief.
"I don't have much to say because I don't intend to be a very strong advocate for my own appointment this evening," he began.
"I think it'd be a mistake to let the over 50 years of African American representation of this council fall away."
The applicants had to file by Oct. 12, weeks before the election. Jim Merritt, the council's lone black member, finished sixth and did not retain his seat. Baker commended the council on waiting for the results before making an appointment, and seeing the current makeup, he said it's clear a black voice is needed.
"While I'll miss Jim's participation on this council, you still have an opportunity with this appointment to ensure that the representation of this council remains diverse and representative of all the people who live in Chapel Hill," he said.
Two of the applicants, Donna Bell and Aaron Shaw, are African-American.
Bell is a resident of Northside Neighborhood who moved here in 2001 who's served on the planning board and the Sustainability Community Visioning Task Force.
"The changes that are coming to Northside that are both happening around me and within my family and it's because of that diversity that feel like I can hold and work with and fight with that I feel like I'm such a good candidate for the council at this time."
Bell said she had planned to run for office in 2011, when her daughter turned three-years-old. She didn't need to spend much time pushing for her candidacy. The next applicant did that for her.
Capowski served on the council from 1991 to 1999 and supports Bell for the seat.
"Should she for whatever reason fail to garner five votes from the council, I remain available to serve," he said.
He said he shares many of Strom's issues, noting public transportation, recreation facilities and strong ties with UNC.
"I can be an effective member immediately," he said, adding that he has no plans to run for election or seek higher office.
"My only desire is to serve the people of Chapel Hill."
H. Brock Page
Page's speech was similar to open mic night at a bar.
"I was born in 1971, in April so that makes me I'm a Taurus. I'm the youngest of two brothers so I'm a devil's advocate," he started.
He walked the council through his history as a Chapel Hill High School student to a guy who took road trips and ultimately became a lawyer. He talked about the blizzard that occurred in New York on his first day of work. He mentioned that he ran a marathon and "went to Tallahassee for a football game that UNC should have won."
He offered a few one liners, remarking about the smell of the N.C. State Fair livestock site where he took his bar exam. "It smells better during the fair than during the bar exam," he said.
He called Judge Carl Fox a "badass."
Interesting, but in all the time he took telling the council about those things, the attorney and bartender at Time Out Sports Bar, never really pushed for his appointment.
"I initially applied for this open spot, I just have a perspective of the drug safety issue," he said. "I'll go ahead and stay in there so you can vote, but clearly we have just absolutely wonderful candidates, so everything is going to be fine.
Pohlman, the fifth place finisher, or first runner up, in the November election, was buoyed by a petition delivered by 150 citizens supporting his candidacy. He acknowledged that he lost, and congratulated the four who finished ahead of him. But he said the 3,665 votes he received deserve recognition and a voice and prepared him well for the seat.
"I could not think of a better way to get more involved or more engaged in the town that running for public office," he said.
He stressed his experience, and said people shouldn't dismiss those who haven't served on town boards and experience. He also challenged the definition of diversity, saying it's not only skin color that matters.
"I contend that the council could use a CPA," he said.
Raymond finished eight in the November race, failing to win a seat for the third consecutive municipal race. He said he wasn't sure if he should speak, and considered dropping his name from consideration like former applicant and failed candidate Jon DeHart. (Lee Pavao and Joshua Ravitch also withdrew, though they didn't run in the election).
He used his time to advocate for the same things he talked about on the stump: smart growth, the needs of the homeless and fiscal responsibility.
He also challenged the council to listen to dissenters and other voices.
"You can't expect the rain without the thunder and lightning," he warned.
Shah is a black resident of Northside Neighborhood. He's a single parent of five children who were in the audience, ranged in age from 17 to 4. Shah, a basketball coach at Chapel Hill High School said he was inspired by Bill Thorpe, a black member of the council for 11 years in the '70s, '80s and from 2005 until his death in 2008.
"If given this opportunity, I would like to continue some of his works," he said.
Shah said his perspective as a resident of public housing would be valuable to the group.
The meeting lasted only 50 minutes. Council members didn't ask any questions, though Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the group wanted the public and applicants to continue to provide information in advance of a Monday, when they plan to make a decision.
He added that the council will continue discussion outside of meetings and may meet with candidates or members of the public, too.
Council members Laurin Easthom, Ed Harrison, Jim Ward and Gene Pease thanked the applicants for their willing to serve and encouraged them to stay involved and run for office should they not gain the seat.