Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com
Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Durham County

City Council member says ethnicity should not decide seat choice – ‘This is Durham’

By Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan

dvaughan@heraldsun.com

December 22, 2017 05:04 PM

DURHAM

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton wants to make sure all 22 council applicants have an equal chance at the vacant seat, and he raised questions about the process of selecting their new colleague.

The council met Thursday to discuss filling the council seat vacated by Mayor Steve Schewel when he was sworn in Dec. 4. It’s an at-large seat with two years left on the term. Per city rules, council members will appoint his replacement.

Middleton said Thursday that he wanted to make a statement about protecting the integrity of the process. He said, particularly on social media, “there seems to be a perception among a number of our residents that we have made a determination already, and if not a particular person, on a particular ethnicity of a person.”

Both Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson encouraged the Latino community to apply, as there is not a Latino council member.

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Of the 22 applicants, 10 are women and 12 are men. They identified their race/ethnicity on their applications with seven Hispanic/Latino, six African-American, six white, one Asian, one “other” and one “multi.”

Middleton, who is African-American, said Thursday that he didn’t want council members artificially weighting candidates based upon preferences.

Johnson, who is African-American, said she has read many job applications that encourage women and people of color to apply to add diversity to an applicant pool.

I think that these concerns have been significantly overblown by constituencies of people whose interest is in supporting specific candidates who do not meet the ethnic background they perceive the council as favoring.

Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson

“I think that these concerns have been significantly overblown by constituencies of people whose interest is in supporting specific candidates who do not meet the ethnic background they perceive the council as favoring,” Johnson said during the meeting.

“I agree the amount of discontent in the community has been frustrating, has been problematic, and is something we need to manage,” she said. Johnson said she doesn’t think that’s based on an unbiased reading of the process, though.

Middleton said Durham doesn’t have a need to remedy bias, historical discrimination or sustained racist attitudes in this appointment. He said a qualified Latino applicant would probably do well in a general election.

“This is Durham,” he said. He said as elected officials, they can encourage that type of participation when their council seat is up.

“I think we as elected officials just have to make sure the process doesn’t have the appearance of any type of undue placing the thumb on the scale ... This is Durham. You know, I’ll just leave it at that,” Middleton said.

Schewel’s comment following the exchange was that he has conscientious colleagues.

The process

The council plans to next narrow down the list from 22 to seven applicants. The city code calls for three to seven candidates, which the council will choose at a special meeting on Jan. 4 after their work session.

The finalists will then be interviewed by the council at a special meeting on Thursday, Jan. 11. Also, the council decided to add another meeting on Jan. 10 where supporters of each applicant will be able to speak to the council about their choices.

In the meantime, the People’s Alliance political action committee will endorse an applicant on Jan. 8 and tell the council their choice as well. Schewel and council members DeDreana Freeman and Vernetta Alston were all endorsed by the People’s Alliance PAC in the recent election. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed Middleton.

Then the six council members, including Schewel, will vote for their choice to fill the seat during another special meeting on Jan. 16 before the regular city council meeting that same night.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan