By Kylie Marsh
On Monday evening, candidates for Chapel Hill Mayor and Town Council attended a virtual forum organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP. Host Herman Foushee posed questions to help voters assess candidates’ commitment to the community’s most marginalized members.
Foushee began by asking candidates to introduce themselves and state their top three governing priorities. The most frequent priorities cited were action to address climate change, affordable housing and transportation.
Other priorities that received mention include economic development, safety, infrastructure and procuring funds to replace income local residents and businesses lost due to COVID-19.
After introductions, the candidates each had an opportunity to describe specific work they have done to support Chapel Hill’s most vulnerable residents.
Robert Beasley, a candidate for town council, acknowledged that he has not been active in local marginalized communities since moving to Chapel Hill.
Vimala Rajendran, who is also seeking a seat on town council, spoke of belonging to the historically Black Northside community when she first moved to Chapel Hill at the age of 26. There, she worked in a day care center and got a firsthand understanding of the community by interacting with the children and families.
Rajendran said that, as a business owner, she is a “bridge builder,” linking communities that reside south of downtown.” Her restaurant has also provided food for and hosted refugee families in the community.
Incumbent town council member Karen Stegman said her passion for volunteer service was one of her main reasons for seeking elective office.
“One of the key roles of government is to intentionally dismantle the systems of inequity that are part of the legacy of government in this country at every level,” she said.
Incumbent Mayor Pam Hemminger spoke of forming the Historic Civil Rights Commemorations Task Force to promote equality and increase awareness of the history of the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill.
Council candidate Camille Berry has served on a number of social service organization boards and in mentorship positions, including Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, Chapel Hill Community Home Trust, and the United Way of the Greater Triangle.
“I’m a fundraiser by trade,” she said. She also served as a volunteer on the board of Piedmont Health.
Zachary Boyce, candidate for mayor, discussed the “powers and duties of the mayor” as “just one voting member on the town council.”
He did not describe any work he has done on behalf of disadvantaged local community members but said that the mayor should “prioritize public policy projects, whether it be related to sustainable energy or affordable housing.”
Council member Hongbin Gu, a candidate for mayor, spoke of distributing protective equipment and vaccines during the pandemic in collaboration with the local NAACP chapter and assisting various local social service organizations — e.g., PORCH and the Inter-Faith Council — with food distribution. She has also served on the boards of many local nonprofits.
Council candidate Paris Miller-Foushee enumerated a long list of prior experiences that she said exemplify her commitment to underrepresented communities, including serving as secretary of the local NAACP chapter and living in the historically Black Northside neighborhood.
Foushee then asked the candidates how they plan to address racial profiling by Chapel Hill law enforcement personnel.
Robert Beasley said the government and police should reflect the diversity of the town and that “we need to make sure we have a diverse population and appreciation for diversity in Chapel Hill.”
Gu echoed Beasley’s sentiments.
“Lots of times, when it comes to criminal justice practice and how we promote people into leadership positions, racial profiling occurs,” she said. “Our Town needs a leader who will make [the new office of] Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) more important.”
Mayor Hemminger, a member of the NAACP chapter, thanked Council candidate Paris Miller-Foushee and incumbent Council member Karen Stegman for serving on the Reimagining Community Safety Task Force and noted that the Town now receives a quarterly report from Chapel Hill police that details information about complaints and internal investigations.
“We have a lot of work to do and that’s why we hired our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer so she can help us do a better job,” Hemminger said.
Miller-Foushee spoke of her work as a member of the Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition and said she works closely with Chapel Hill police to “change policies that unfairly target people of color.”
Searing began his answer by acknowledging that he is “a middle-aged white guy” who has never personally experienced racial profiling. However, he said that “as a data guy,” he supports the use of police data to improve policing practices.
Searing also voiced support for pre-arrest diversion and deflection programs that provide individuals with treatment and services instead of processing them through the criminal justice system. “We can stop handing out criminal citations for minor traffic violations,” he said.
Boyce responded that, as a person of African descent himself, he understands the significance of racial profiling. In response to other candidates’ statements of support for anti-racist training from a DEI officer, Boyce said he would work with the city’s DEI officer rather than treat the officer “as a person who works for me.”
The discussion then turned to the question of how to balance the needs of marginalized communities and the desire to conserve the Town’s remaining undeveloped forest land, such as the Greene Tract.
Candidates were asked whether they’d support the plan for mixed-use development called for by members of the historically Black Rogers Road and Eubanks neighborhood (RENA) in a 2016 publication called Mapping Our Community’s Future.
The residents of the Rogers Road-Eubanks neighborhood agreed in 1972 to allow the Town and County to construct a new landfill nearby. In exchange for hosting the environmental nuisance, the neighborhood was promised various municipal services, some of which, almost 50 years later, have still yet to materialize.
“We wouldn’t be debating this if these needs were expressed anywhere else in our community,” said Miller-Foushee.
“This is an opportunity for us to do the right thing and a way forward for the working-class community members who suffered from environmental racism for three decades.”
Mayor Hemminger agreed.
“We owe this community,” she said. “We’ve put this community in the crosshairs of three different jurisdictions and a landfill. It’s time to deliver on the promises made over three decades ago.”
Gu also agreed.
“[The Rogers Road-Eubanks neighborhood] needs economic development and access to things like a grocery store and pharmacy,” she explained. “These are very reasonable requests. They need these facilities to make the community whole.”
Searing emphasized that the Mapping Our Community’s Future plan envisioned conserving at least 80% of the Greene Tract as forest and allocating the other 20% for the construction of affordable housing. “I fully support that,” Searing said, but added that he does not support a more recent proposal to develop almost 50% of the site.
The new plan, he said, is inconsistent with the vision laid out in Mapping Our Community’s Future, which prioritized conservation of the Greene Tract’s special natural areas. “I think we should go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Berry, who stated that she emphatically supports RENA’s plan to develop half of the property, said, “This is how we slow down progress; we come up with a resolution and say, ‘let’s go back to the drawing board.’”
Stegman said she does not feel bound by the vision espoused in Mapping Our Community’s Future.
“Mapping Our Community’s Future is a guide,” she said, “not a land-use plan.”