Tuesday’s Carrboro Town Council meeting is a chance to celebrate our new Mayor-elect Barbara Foushee and three newly elected Town Council candidates: incumbent Eliazar Posada and newcomers Catherine Fray and Jason Merrill.

Each newly elected official gets to pick who gives them the oath of office. Fray will be sworn in by former mayor Lydia Lavelle, Merrill by Interim Town Clerk Wendy Walsh, Foushee by Congresswoman Valerie Foushee, and Eliazar Posada by District Court Judge Joal Broun.

After the oaths are given, the council takes their first official actions: they take a photo, pass resolutions honoring outgoing elected officials, elect the mayor pro tempore, adopt a meeting calendar, get their committee assignments, and decide how to fill Foushee’s newly vacant council seat through an election or an appointment. (There’s precedent for both in Carrboro; Broun and many others before her were appointed to the Carrboro Town Council; Posada won a special election after Damon Seils left his council seat to become mayor.)

broun-appointed
Joal Hall Broun was appointed to Carrboro Town Council, as were many before her.

Earlier today, we started to see rhetoric—in blog posts, in emails, on Reddit—that appointing a replacement council member to serve out Foushee’s term would be “anti-democratic,” “autocratic,” “authoritarian,” and a “form of voter suppression.”

This is wildly inappropriate and inaccurate, particularly when there is voter suppression affecting voters in North Carolina in the form of voter ID requirements and laws that make it harder for people to vote through absentee and early voting. That voter suppression is coming from the NCGA and Republicans in Congress, not from our democratically elected progressive town council.

Describing an appointment—which is, again, commonplace throughout the state and the standard method of filling vacancies in municipal office in North Carolina—as “voter suppression” and “autocratic” minimizes the real harm done by the destruction of democratic institutions both in this state and this country.

How are vacancies filled in North Carolina?

The overwhelming majority of municipalities in North Carolina (including our non-autocratic neighbor Chapel Hill) use appointments to fill vacant council seats. G.S. 160A-63 outlines this process: “A vacancy that occurs in an elective office of a city shall be filled by appointment of the city council.” Appointments to town council have happened in Carrboro – with the appointment of Joal Broun—and in Chapel Hill, Durham, Asheville, Raleigh, and other Democratic strongholds around the state.

Carrboro has a unique provision in its town charter that allows the council to call a special election. This was added in 2007 after a particularly contentious mayoral race in 2005, in which two sitting aldermen challenged each other. (It was contentious because both the winner and the loser stayed on town council. Awkward.) Each of those people backed a different appointee, and the board deadlocked through several rounds of votes, before appointing Dan Coleman. They then asked the state to pass a law stating Carrboro has the additional option of holding a special election with a vacancy. Carrboro is one of the few municipalities in the state that can do this.

The provision doesn’t specify when Carrboro has to hold a special election. Typically it takes place to coincide with other elections, to save money. So they could choose any of the following four options:

  1. They can hold a special election in March 2024 (during the primaries)
  2. They can hold a special election in November 2024 (during the next election cycle.)
  3. They can choose not to appoint someone to fill the seat, a tactic Chapel Hill took after Council Member Rachel Schaevitz moved to New Zealand.
  4. They can choose to appoint a person to town council.

The emails that called an appointment “voter suppression” have heavily advocated for the first option and have encouraged people to email council about it. This option is not as democratic as it sounds: it puts a thumb on the scales of who is likely to win the election because the filing period is…now. It would be very hard for someone to decide to run this week, get a treasurer, get enough funding to launch a campaign, and be ready for an election in a March primary.

We’ll point out several other factors that make us lean heavily towards an appointment – and if not, then a special election in November (not March.)

Carrboro in 2023 is very different than Carrboro in 2005

Unlike 2005, this was not a contentious election for mayor or for council. Barbara Foushee won with 96.92% of the vote and the three new council members who won (Fray, Merrill, Posada) collectively received 79.88% of all the votes cast in their race. Carrboro just demonstrated an overwhelming support for their leadership and direction, by perhaps the highest margin in any recent competitive election here.

Special elections benefit those who have recently run and lost.

Elections take time, money, and resources and naturally benefit those who already have those advantages. A special election only months away – in March – benefits those who ended or “ended” their campaign only a month ago – who still have staff and legal filings on record.

Although two council candidates (Wade, Mills) were summarily defeated in a fair and open election by wide margins, it has been made clear with material shared with us that supporters of these candidates want an advantaged redo of the last election by getting a material head start in a special election. This might make sense if the fourth place winner was close – but these elections were blowouts.

There’s not a lot of time to file – which benefits those who are already “in the know.”

Holding an election in March means there’s only 8 remaining business days to file a candidacy. This favors someone who has run in the past and has their materials in order and/or someone who can easily self fund the start of their campaign and/or someone who has the job flexibility to do all of this in less than 10 days. It’s notable that every single person advocating for this backed the two candidates that lost.

A lot of hay was made about the effect of money in local politics during the last election cycle. A lot of the most vocal critics are now silent about the benefits that a shortened election cycle and existing campaign money will have on candidates and positions already rejected by our town. We urge this council to adopt an equity lens in their decision and determine whether this undeniable head start is fair.

We don’t think folks should have to run twice in two years, resource questions or no.

Eliazar Posada ran for a special election in May 2022 and then needed to run again a year later. That’s incredibly tiring and inefficient.

Appointments are simply not controversial anywhere else in the state

An email sent out earlier today to dozens and dozens of people across Carrboro by a Democratic Party precinct chair (!) said “The voters who did not vote for the slate deserve representation on the council and an election of CHOICE is how this seat should be filled.” (Italics are ours.) The precinct chair, who strongly supported the losing candidates in the election cycle, encouraged people to email council.

The idea that the losing candidates’ vision deserve representation after they weren’t elected in November undermines the majority of voters who decided, in the November election, what positions and candidates do deserve representation on our town council. (And Randee Haven-O’Donnell, who sits on council and has for over a decade, does represent those views.)

After the town council decides a path forward on Tuesday, December 5, there’s very little time to file for a March election. There’s also little time to communicate the opening to Carrboro’s diverse communities, and for people who aren’t connected (or who have previously run) to learn more. Candidate filings for the March election ends on December 15, 2023.

If an election is chosen, this community will spend thousands of hours canvassing, conversing, and debating. We are prepared for that possibility, but we believe all of our time is better spent in collective cause against the very true authoritarian forces awaiting us in 2024 than re-litigating the 2023 fair and democratic election cycle.

We trust the current council to make an appointment, and encourage them to do so.

How can I tell  Carrboro Town Council what I think?

There aren’t any comments allowed at Tuesday’s meeting because it’s an organizational meeting. Instead, we encourage you to email town council at council@carrboronc.gov and tell them you want them to appoint someone or, if not, hold an election next November so there’s time for candidates to gather money and support.

Nick Lytle contributed to this piece.

 

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Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....