Filling vacancy among council’s priorities

Dec. 22, 2012 @ 12:37 PM

When the Town Council returns to work next month, it will begin what is shaping up to be a busy new year.
There’s the big move back to the newly expanded library to deal with, the sorting through major development proposals such as the proposed Obey Creek mixed-use project that would transform the southern end of town into a major commercial hub, a new budget process for fiscal year 2013-14, implementation of the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan and many other important, complex issues to keep the council busy for months to come.
But at or near the top of its agenda, will be the choosing of a new council member to replace former councilwoman Penny Rich who resigned this month to take a seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
“This spring is going to be busy,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “It’s going to be big deal, after big deal, after big deal.”
So far, five residents have expressed interest in replacing Rich, including former councilwoman Sally Greene, who in 2011 did not seek re-election to the seat she first won in 2003.
Because of the tough issues in front of the council, Kleinschmidt has expressed a preference for replacing Rich with someone with experience such as Greene.
“I think we’re going to be dealing with such big issues that it’s going to be helpful to the community to have someone who can hit the ground running,” Kleinschmidt said.
Only two of the five reported applicants had formally filed an application for the seat by Wednesday afternoon.
Gary Kahn, a Southern Village resident and Maria Palmer, an education consultant who served as co-chair of the Chapel Hill 2020 transportation theme group, both submitted applications earlier this month.
Palmer, who is Latino, said in a written statement said she hopes the council will chose someone who reflects the demographics of Chapel Hill in the 21st century.
“I want to help the Latino community – and other diverse groups – to participate in our town’s decision-making process,” Palmer wrote. “Chapel Hill can become a model of environmental health, sustainable development, inclusion and opportunity.”
Palmer also shared her view on development, saying that the town must have a “balanced economy” and that “difficult choices must include more commercial revenue.
She added that development must foster entrepreneurship and protect “low-income home owners and historic neighborhoods.”
Kahn, who seldom misses council meetings, said his professional experience as a Wall Street clerk and retail manager make him a good candidate to fill the vacancy.
And he said through his prolific attendance of council meetings, he has gained valuable insight into town issues.
“In closing, I hope you consider all the above mentioned and appoint me to the vacancy,” Kahn wrote.  
In addition to Kahn, Palmer and Greene, Jon DeHart, a branch manager for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage in Durham and Amy Ryan, a longtime resident who serves on the town’s Planning Board, have expressed interest in replacing Rich.
The Town Council has approved a process that gives residents wanting to fill the vacancy until 5 p.m. on Jan. 7 to submit an application to the town clerk.
The process calls for council to review applications and make nominations a week later at its Jan. 14 business meeting. That meeting is scheduled to start an hour earlier at 6 p.m., to give applicants a chance to make brief remarks.
Council could make an appointment Jan. 23 at a special meeting that would precede scheduled public hearings. If it does make an appointment at that meeting, the applicant chosen would be sworn in at the council’s Jan. 28 meeting.
The council last filled a vacancy in 2009 when it chose Councilwoman Donna Bell from among 12 applicants to complete the term of Bill Strom who resigned abruptly.
Bell was elected to the seat in 2011.