During a regularly scheduled business meeting on April 6, 2020, Durham City Council announced the resignation of our valued councilmember, Vernetta Alston, due to her transition to the North Carolina General Assembly. We are grateful to her for her years of progressive service.
The Durham City Council must now fill the Ward 3 vacancy created by Representative Alston’s departure. People in Durham and beyond are battling personal and financial uncertainties hour by hour, day by day. We cannot let our privilege allow us to move forward without acknowledging and meaningfully responding to our current state of affairs. In light of this, the People’s Alliance PAC will not move forward with facilitating and executing an endorsement process at this time.
Under the circumstances currently imposed upon us by COVID-19 and considerations for public health, public participation in and oversight of our city government is seriously curtailed. Government operations have been reduced to a minimum and the City Council now meets virtually. It is difficult for members of the public to communicate with government officials and to watch or participate in council meetings. Given the importance of public involvement in government in Durham, the City Council should reduce to the barest minimum the business it must do while public engagement is so difficult. As a result, City Council should not undertake to appoint Councilmember Alston’s successor. In a system of representative government, the people should select their council representatives.
Under state law, the council may fill a vacancy through an appointment process. The time allowed for the process, sixty days, is, under normal conditions, sufficient to provide ample opportunity for public input and the highest degree of public scrutiny. But under the extraordinary circumstances imposed by COVID-19, the appointment process cannot be carried out with the level of public engagement necessary to make the selection of a new City Council member an appropriate exercise of democratic government.
Fortunately, Section 13.2(d) of our City Charter provides that the City Council may call for a special election to fill the Alston vacancy instead of using the appointment process: “If the council fails to choose some qualified person within 60 days after the vacancy occurs, it may not fill the vacancy by appointment, but shall call a special election under the provisions of 13.3 of this charter…” The election of Councilmember Alston’s successor may be added to the general election already scheduled for November. And while we acknowledge that it is not ideal to leave a seat on the council vacant for a number of months, we feel that it is preferable to wait and let the people of Durham -residents of Ward 3- decide who should fill the seat rather than allowing the City Council to appoint a new councilmember without full public engagement.