Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Wednesday, May 8, 1996

Ex-council member who resigned under a cloud up for town board

Chapel Hill Herald, May 8, 1996


CHAPEL HILL -- Former Town Council Member Joe Herzenberg, who resigned in 1993 after pleading guilty to tax evasion, is vying for a seat on Chapel Hill's Greenways Commission.

Late last month Herzenberg won a unanimous endorsement from Greenways Commission members who reviewed applicants for two upcoming vacancies.

His nomination will go to the Town Council later this spring, but it's already produced a bit of tongue-wagging among the elected officials who will have to approve it.

Council Member Joe Capowski said Herzenberg's history raises doubts in his mind about the nomination.

"We need responsible recommendations from those boards and people on them who recognize the value of taxpayers' money, especially in light of the fact we're about to start talking about a million-dollar bond for parks and recreation and greenways," Capowski said.

Other council members, however, said they know of no reason to deny Herzenberg a seat.

"I don't see why [people] would be concerned with an advisory group," said Council Member Lee Pavao. "They can recommend funds to be allocated, but they themselves don't handle funds. It's the council that makes those decisions."

"Joe's difficulty with not paying taxes did raise doubts about the appropriateness of his retaining elected office, but I do not see a problem with him serving the community in an advisory capacity on something he cares deeply about," added Council Member Julie Andresen. "I think we ought to take advantage of it."

Herzenberg triggered a furor in August 1992 when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of failing to file his 1989 N.C. income tax return and 1990 state intangibles tax return.

The admission, the result of a negotiated plea with the attorney general's office, was accompanied by revelations that he had not filed state tax returns from 1978 to 1992 or intangibles returns from 1986 to 1992.

Officials who had seen Herzenberg, a fixture on the local political scene, lead the ticket in the 1991 council election soon called on him to resign.

When he didn't, they asked the N.C. General Assembly to give local voters permission to stage recall elections. Legislators agreed in 1993, and residents shortly afterward organized the county's first recall petition.

Organizers of that drive said then that they objected to the town's having a convicted tax evader in a position to rule on the use of taxpayer dollars.

Herzenberg resigned his seat on Sept. 23, 1993, as elections workers were close to validating the recall petition.

The former council member has remained active in local affairs since leaving office. Questions about the Greenways Commission post seemed to catch him by surprise Monday.

Herzenberg noted that his former colleagues appointed him to serve on another advisory group, the museum study committee, that went about its business for a year without fuss.

That appointment came in June 1994. Herzenberg was one of 12 people named to the panel by acclamation, according to council minutes.

The panel planned a municipal museum in the old Chapel Hill Library building on East Franklin Street. As part of that study it outlined the capital and operating budgets organizers will need to get the museum off the ground.

The museum committee wrapped up its work in May 1995. Herzenberg said he applied for the greenways post because "it just happened for the first time in like 20 years" he's not now on one of Chapel Hill's advisory boards.

Herzenberg added that he's looking forward to serving on a board that has been "sort of a stepchild" in town politics.

At one time the council considered merging the Greenways Commission with the town's Parks and Recreation Commission.

"Greenways needs a little boost in its efforts," Herzenberg said. "I don't want to critical, but I think it needs a little more focus, leadership, something or another."

He added that he doesn't think the events of 1992 and 1993 will prove a stumbling block to an appointment.

Capowski, however, said he wants to talk to his former colleague before making a decision.

"I'm concerned about his being part of the decision-making process about the spending of taxpayers' money unless he can assure us he has paid every bit of his back taxes" for the 14 years the attorney general's office said he hadn't filed, Capowski said.

As part of the plea, Herzenberg was required to pay $800 in back taxes for 1989 and $600 for 1990. He said Monday that, "to the best of my knowledge," he complied with that ruling.

But whether he has since paid for other years when he didn't file is a different issue -- one even Herzenberg says he can't answer.

"You're asking me questions I've not thought about for so long," Herzenberg said. "I think it's paid off, I'm not sure. I think we gave them some money, and they did not ask for more."

N.C. Department of Revenue officials declined Monday to comment on Herzenberg's case.