Voters could have made dramatic changes in the makeup of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners. Instead, just one seat will change hands. With six candidates vying for three seats on the five-member board and one of the two members not up for re-election seeking a spot in the General Assembly, the potential existed for four new board members, or even if fewer, a group that was completely hostile to the general direction of county government in recent years. But that’s not what voters decided on Tuesday.
Instead they stuck with incumbents Carrol Mitchem and Alex Patton. Cecelia Martin, got the nod to take the seat of George Arena, who decided against seeking a second term. Commissioner Jim Klein was unsuccessful in his bid for the State House, and can complete his term as a commissioner.
Even so, this small change will bring a significant shift in the board when Martin takes office in December. Arena has been a steady vote for planned growth and enforcement of zoning rules, as well as a supporter of the county’s much-criticized tax administration. Martin has not voiced any extreme positions, but she appears to tilt the other way on these issues. Looking back at Arena’s voting record, it’s easy to see many 3-2 votes that might have gone 2-3 if Martin had been in the seat. Clearly this change will be significant when the county makes tough decisions.
At the same time, the sitting board and the board that will be sworn in later this year should look carefully at what the voters did and didn’t say.
During forums that followed the county’s property revaluation last year, speakers warned county staffers of their wrath after this election. Mike Davis’ bid for office grew out of this movement. The campaign of Martin Oakes, long a critic of the county’s tax office, emphasized a major case the county lost on appeal last year. Mitchem, the only sitting commissioner to vote against reappointing tax administrator Madge Huffman last year, was embraced by those angry about the tax office. While Mitchem was the top vote-getter in Tuesday’s polling, Davis never gained much traction with voters and finished a distant fifth. Oakes repeated his performance from 2010 with a fourth-place finish, 500 votes behind third-place Patton, with whom he has conducted a sometimes bitter feud, often around the tax office issue.
Voters sent no clear message on county tax policy, no mandate to punish county employees. But many voters remain concerned about whether property evaluations are done fairly with a reasonable chance of success on appeal. That frees board members to follow their consciences. Perhaps the wisest course would be to do as Mitchem has suggested, and conduct an internal investigation into the county’s handling of the Nixon estate revaluation and appeal, in order to ensure accountability and weigh possible changes in county policy.
On one of the toughest issues, when and whether to renovate the old hospital to meet growing demands for county office space, the message was also murky. Patton has favored progressing with renovations. Some candidates, such as Oakes, were skeptical about whether the space is needed; those candidates didn’t fair well. Mitchem and Martin voiced support for a careful phased-in approach. If there was any message, it was that the county should spend the public’s money carefully.
Voters sent a clearer message on zoning. Patton supports moderate growth management, but often votes in favor of small businesses seeking exceptions when individual cases come before the board. Voters picked him over the more stridently pro-zoning Oakes and were unfavorable to Klein, who has been reliably pro-zoning. Mitchem, among the staunchest critics of the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, was a clear winner. Cecelia Martin, who has expressed concerns about too much interference with property rights, also did well. But some other candidates who were clearly opposed to zoning faired poorly.
Based on this, the county would be wise to reconsider aspects of its approach to zoning, particularly the UDO and the Vision Plan for portions of eastern Lincoln County that was approved last year. Voters seem to favor limited and reasonable controls on property usage, but aggressive schemes with intrusive mandates for facades, setbacks, parking spaces and landscaping no longer seem to have the support of a public that really craves job creation.
The overall mandate: Commissioners should act judiciously and with fresh eyes as they strive to do what’s best for the people.