BIG CITY: A town-county disconnect
By Kirk Ross
I had a funny feeling about this primary election. There were a lot more so-called “X” factors than usual.
The Amendment One vote was bound to drive up turnout, especially in Orange County, which was among the group of counties where amendment opponents wanted to drive turnout. That made it a little unclear about how things would play out elsewhere on the ballot. But it didn’t take a political sixth sense to figure that when it came to the county commissioner races, it was a tough time to be an incumbent. It’s not just that the county budget has taken hits over the past few years from the General Assembly and the recession; the current board of commissioners has had to deal with a transition at the top of county management, a lot of thorny policy issues and an ambitious and costly capital project plan begun by previous boards.
When all you can do is try to make the best possible choices in programs and positions to ax and write the checks for the vision of previous administrations, you’re not going to have a lot to hang your hat on. Add in a few tone-deaf moments on libraries, solid waste and changing the county/town split on the sales tax, and all the ingredients were in place for what we saw in the totals on Election Day.
I think what got under people’s skin more than anything was the disconnect between the county and the towns. For many, it translated to a lack of leadership. We want our local governments to work together, not at odds – especially during times of scarce resources.
One of the big selling points for both Mark Dorosin and Penny Rich was their experience as elected officials in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, respectively. Neither was shy about pointing out that none of the current commissioners have served in a similar capacity.
Presuming that Renee Price, who obviously put together a very effective campaign in the primary, and Bernadette Pelissier can win out in the fall – and I am – the county board that takes over in December will be a much different beast than the one that’s currently in office.
The new board arrives with rebuilding confidence among citizens and the elected boards around the county as a top goal. To tackle the problems ahead, particularly solid waste, the board will need all the cooperation it can get.
In addition to taking on some difficult issues, the new board also has a unique opportunity to shape the county’s future. It will inherit a much leaner county government and a much more modest list of capital expenditures. As economic growth and revenues start to come back, the board won’t be as hamstrung in seeing through new ideas and initiatives as well as restoring funds to programs hard-hit during the recession. And in policy matters, there is plenty of opportunity for new ideas and direction. In the coming years the board will have a chance to put its stamp on regional efforts in transportation as well as local initiatives in economic development, land-use planning, agriculture and the arts.
Most importantly, as was pointed out during the campaign, the new board of commissioners will have a chance to show this county’s citizens and the rest of the state the kind of leadership we’ve been lacking. As times have gotten tough, we’ve let that slip.
We’ve also seen a rise in poverty in this county that few seem willing to acknowledge. It’s hard to fault anyone who has had to deal with the tough combination of dwindling state support and a deep recession, but coming out of it we should be clear that we haven’t compromised our long-term goals and long-held values.
The people have spoken. They’ve bought into Dorosin’s “fair county,” Rich’s call for cooperation and Price’s call for innovation and greater transparency.
Their new colleagues would do well to heed the message – 26,527 votes say they’re on to something.