Due to the unfortunate passing of Councilmember Bill Thorpe a seat has opened on the Town Council.

I met Bill when we ran for Council in 2005. Many folks who knew Bill have lovingly weighed in on his work on behalf of our community, his wry sense of humor, his particular practice of governance. Fellow colleague Laurin Easthom, for one, had this to say about our friend Bill.

Today’s Herald-Sun reports that the Council will select the next member.

The council will have to try. According to Section 2.3 of the Chapel Hill Town Ordinances, Thorpe’s seat “shall be filled by appointment of the town council for the remainder of the unexpired term.”

Voters won’t have an opportunity to weigh in on the occupant of that seat until next fall, when Thorpe’s place along with three other council positions will go be on the ballot. The winners of the next town council election will taking their seats in December 2009.

The town ordinance leaves council members a lot of room to create a framework for making the appointment. Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said the language in the ordinance is as specific as is available.

“[The appointment process] is something that they would have to decide, it’s not prescribed,” Town Manager Roger Stancil said.

The last time the Chapel Hill Town Council appointed a new member to fill a vacancy was January 1998 after six-year Councilman Mark Chilton had resigned the previous month. Council members invited citizens to apply for the vacant seat during December and held a special meeting on Jan. 5 at which applicants presented their case for the appointment.

But if I’m reading the Town’s ordinance 2.3 correctly, it leans towards a democratic option:

Sec. 2.3. Vacancies in elected offices.

If any elected town officer shall fail or refuse to be qualified, or if there is a vacancy in any elective town office after qualification, or if the holder of any such office be unable to discharge the duties of the office, then such vacancy shall be provided in the following manner:

(1) A vacancy occurring in the office of mayor, which occurs on or before the fortieth day prior to the 1981 town election shall be filled by the town council only until that election, at which time a mayor shall be elected to serve the remainder of the unexpired term. A vacancy occurring in the office of mayor which occurs at any other time shall be filled by appointment of the town council for the remainder of the unexpired term.

(2) A vacancy occurring on the council, which occurs during the period beginning with the first day of the four year term of office and ending on the fortieth day prior to the next regular biennial town election shall be filled by appointment of the town council only until the next general municipal election at which time a member shall be elected to the remainder of said unexpired term. The candidate receiving the fifth highest number of votes (and if necessary the 6th, 7th and 8th highest number) following those elected for full four-year terms, shall be declared elected for the remainder of the unexpired term. A vacancy occurring on the council, which occurs at any other time shall be filled by appointment of the town council for the remainder of the unexpired term.

(Acts 1979, Ch. 1107, § 1; Acts 1981, Ch. 911, § 7)

If I recall correctly, while Carrboro struggled to fill the vacancy left by Mark Chilton becoming Mayor, a position later given to Dan Coleman, various elected folks from Chapel Hill said we wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the position would most probably go to the candidate “next in line”.

If the Council does appoint a successor using a different yardstick than the 2007 election, I would call upon them to defer towards direct democracy and hold a special election concurrent with the national race.

Having gone through the municipal election cycle twice, it seems within the realm of possibility to mount an abbreviated campaign for this office in the next 35 days.

If the Council dispenses with that direct democracy option, I hope that they do so without regard to gender, political party or ethnicity, as was further suggested by the article and, rather, give due consideration to those folks that ran in 2007.

For background, here’s the Council minutes of the 1998 interview process.

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