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Beyond politics of east and west

Some of the shrill political rhetoric coming out of East Lincoln these days is nothing short of thinly disguised bigotry toward anyone native to or living in the portion of Lincoln County that isn’t within the narrow band between N.C. 16 and Lake Norman.
Apparently, someone has decided it’s in their political or business interests to drive a wedge between that part of the county and the rest of us.
Bizarre letters the paper has received have made wild and unsubstantiated assertions about why people should oppose the candidacy of Cecelia Allran Martin for county commissioner. Some have even brazenly asserted that no one from outside East Lincoln can be trusted to lead this county.
Perhaps most offensive was a cartoon appearing in the Denver-based news@norman depicting commissioner candidate Cecelia Martin as a puppet on strings being controlled by Joe Kiser, alongside sitting Commissioner Carrol Mitchem.
I talked with Martin about the message contained in the cartoon recently. She didn’t even know Commissioner Mitchem prior to this election, and he certainly had nothing to do with her reasons for seeking office.
She did know Joe Kiser, former holder of many offices including minority leader of the North Carolina House of Representatives. She’d even had a run in with Joe when her husband was developing Verdict Ridge and Mr. Kiser was less than cooperative in their quest for alcohol permits, at least from her point of view.
And in case you missed it, yes the Martins were involved in developing Verdict Ridge in eastern Lincoln County. They may live in Crouse, where Cecelia was born and where she returned to care for her elderly mother a few years ago, but don’t let that fool you. She has broader interests and wider knowledge of the world than just the tight-knit community she happens to call home.
Cecelia Martin worked for many years as a court reporter for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. As such, she has a thorough knowledge of the workings of state government. Her work often took her to county commissioner meetings in many parts of the state. Can you think of a better way for someone to learn how things can be done instead of simply how they are being done here?
Frankly, the cartoon and similar rhetoric from those opposing her candidacy is belittling to women, to Southerners and to Cecelia herself. She exercised her own excellent mind in deciding to run and has not shown any indication that she’s taking signals from anyone else.
Her opponent in the runoff is Jim Klein, a sitting commissioner who came in third in the voting.
Those bashing Martin might want to take a closer look at Klein’s actions and words as commissioner. He may be the greatest thing since sliced bread to the news@norman this week, but this sitting commissioner wasn’t one of the candidates to receive its endorsement in the first round of voting.
Ironically, the news@norman has often been scathingly accurate in its criticism of Klein’s performance. Those comments have been set aside because he is opposed by a candidate from west of N.C. 16.
Klein often comes off as aloof and disconnected during commissioner meetings, something even those who agree with his positions on the issues have noted. He tends to focus on minor points that waste the board’s time and quibble over details that others believed were settled.
This election isn’t just about the issues; it’s also about competence to serve the people of this county.
During a recent commissioners meeting, Klein objected to a request from the Department of Social Services for funding to upgrade their antiquated filing system with a computerized system that would save money on anticipated additional expenses for paper and personnel over time, while allowing DSS to do its job better. Klein said he didn’t think it was a good business decision to justify new funding with savings only to anticipated additional cost.
Appalled at Klein’s remarks, Commissioner Bruce Carlton of Denver appropriately scolded Klein, saying that if he was a businessman who walked into the office and discovered his company had the kind of filing system DSS has now, he would “freak out.”
During the same budget workshop, Klein suddenly blew up at Commissioner Mitchem for making a political point about slow growth, taking the remarks as personally aimed at him. “Are you the one in a runoff?” Klein demanded in a sudden outburst.
Then Klein announced he had to leave early due to another obligation and some confusion about how long the session was expected to go, leaving the other board members’ mouths open as he departed without being present for discussion of the heart of the county’s budget.
His recent over-the-top threats against school funding have hardly given him increased credibility and may have undermined the otherwise strong moral position against nepotism that he was trying to take.
Even so, some in East Lincoln seem convinced that if Cecelia Martin replaces Jim Klein on the board, the floodgates will open and the east will lose its voice.
This makes no sense. Assuming Republicans prevail this fall, East Lincoln resident Carl Robinson will take Carlton’s seat and will join fellow East Lincoln resident George Arena on the five-member board. However, Commission Chairman Alex Patton of Lincolnton has often voted with the easterners on many issues.
This change might cut into eastern dominance, but it wouldn’t really blunt their ability to get their agenda through the board.
The entire east-west divide that receives so much attention really involves a very small number of issues. Foremost are zoning and development policies. Mitchem has been vocal in asserting that the county’s Unified Development Ordinance is harmful to business interests. The easterners and Patton have generally been friendly to moderate regulations that they believe will prevent willy-nilly over-development.
But there’s give and take, with many nuances. Arena and Patton joined Mitchem in a recent vote to approve a rezoning request for a business on N.C. 16, in face of strong opposition from Klein and Carlton.
Alliances shift from vote to vote as the real work of the board continues. For example, on a non-zoning issue, Klein has appeared the commissioner most sympathetic to Mitchem on a request for ABC proceeds to be earmarked for schools as additional funding above the normal schools budget.
Would Cecelia Martin in place of Klein be the vote that unravels the county’s Unified Development Ordinance?
A conversation with Martin highlights just how much peril the UDO is in – Not very much. She says she thinks it needs to be tweaked but she’s not opposed to reasonable levels of regulation on development. She doesn’t want to put up roadblocks that will prevent us from luring more employers to the community. Pretty radical, huh?
There were candidates who ran with the full blessing of the self-appointed kingmakers in the east who said almost exactly the same thing.
Voters have an important decision next week.
They can stick with Klein, who for all of his eccentricities is a predictable vote in favor of the type of strict development regulation that some people think is essential to their way of life.
Or they can go vote for a politically but not governmentally inexperienced candidate, Cecelia Martin, who will probably be a bit of a wildcard because she promises to think for herself and not stick to anyone’s agenda.
I’m not going to endorse anyone, though I will be going out and casting my own vote for the candidate I’ve chosen.
I just would encourage voters to think about the issues, about competence of these candidates and not make their choice simply based on where someone lives.
Frank Taylor is managing editor of the Times-News. E-mail him at editor@ltnews.com.
by Frank Taylor

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