Chatham County Commissioners, Districts 3, 4 and 5
Four years ago, in making endorsements for these same three seats, we said, "The stakes are high, with the rural county poised at the edge of a development boom that will change its character for better or worse, depending on who's in charge."
Boy, were we wrong.
It wasn't a boom; it was a tsunami. The Triangle's southwestern corner has exploded with 10,000 new homes already approved; countless more are taking shape on drawing boards of developers from Wake County to California. With these rooftops come new expenses for water and sewer service and other public facilities, new schools, parks and roads. Meanwhile, the attractive qualities that make up Chatham's rural character--its acres of pristine woodlands, quiet back-country roads, family farms and secluded artist outposts--are beginning to recede in the paths of the bulldozers.
While the current majority on the five-member board likes to paint its opposition as anti-growth radicals, the reality is no one's actually advocating for stopping residential development in Chatham. The crucial question in Chatham County isn't "Should Chatham grow?" The crucial question in this year's three commissioner races--two of which will be decided by the Democratic primary--is "Who gets to decide how Chatham grows?"
Under the current majority of Bunkey Morgan, Tommy Emerson and Carl Outz, the developers get to decide--the current majority has not rejected a single proposal that's come before it. Rezonings are regularly granted with little critical analysis; watershed protections are flexible, payment of fees for water taps can be delayed because certain developers are "good people."
Meanwhile, the school system is foundering for capital funds to house new students, roads are growing more congested, and the burden of financing the costs of new development is falling squarely in the lap of the current property taxpayers. In the western half of the demographically diverse county, far from the sprawling suburb that's becoming northeast Chatham, residents are still hoping "growth" translates into meaningful economic development, new jobs that pay a living wage, better educations for their children.
Until county leaders stand up for the public interest over private ones, the only positive outcome of the wave of new houses washing into Chatham is a fat bottom line--for the sprawl lobby of developers, large land owners, real estate agents and others who profit from the storm.
This primary, voters have a chance to turn the tide by giving a majority to commissioners who will advocate for the interests of everyday citizens, balance the requests of developers with the needs of the community, hold the county government open and accountable to its constituents, and provide better stewardship of Chatham's natural resources.
All three seats are hotly contested, and the campaign trail is littered with voter manipulation, special interest supporters and plenty of intrigue. More on that in next week's Indy; here are our endorsements:
In central Chatham, District 3, the Independent endorses former planning board chairman and retired scientist George Lucier, a distinguished leader with a record of community service and a clear vision for Chatham's future. Lucier faces Mary Delois Nettles, the former chairwoman of the county Democratic Party, who has attended only one of four recent candidates' forums. Incumbent Carl Outz is retiring.
In District 4, which covers the northwestern corner of the county, our nod goes to Tom Vanderbeck, who runs a small organic farm. In addition to demonstrating a tough grip on the issues and a willingness to stand up for the public interest, Vanderbeck's candidacy offers voters an additional incentive: the chance to oust Morgan, a wealthy carwash owner and the darling of development interests. The ringleader of Chatham's current state of affairs, Morgan's leadership has been fraught with ethical questions about his residency and his finances, including his recent personal financial support of two planning board members.
In District 5, the southwestern district, we support Bear Creek educator Carl E. Thompson, a former commissioner who served 12 distinguished years from 1978-90, and who brings to the table--among many other valuable qualifications and experiences--a master's degree in planning, an expertise sorely needed on this board.
All voters vote in all three races, though the candidates are supposed to live in their districts. All seats carry four-year terms. Winners in Districts 3 and 5 will join incumbents Mike Cross and Patrick Barnes; the District 4 victor faces Republican Karl Ernst in November.
Clerk of Court
In the Democratic primary, which decides this race, the Independent's nod goes to incumbent Janice E. Oldham, who for 31 years has directed a friendly, organized office that efficiently handles a complicated variety of responsibilities, from keeping civil and criminal court records to processing estates. Political newcomer Jim A. Lewis is the challenger.
Chatham County Sheriff
In this three-way primary, which decides this race, the Independent endorses incumbent Democrat Richard H. Webster, whom we also backed four years ago. In 2002, Webster took the helm of a department overripe for house-cleaning and updating, and has tackled the job with enthusiasm and professionalism. Webster faces challenges from Allan (Ziggy) Zimmerman, a retired N.C. Highway Patrol officer and current county school board member, and plumber Frank Partin.
Superior Court Judge, District 15-B (Orange and Chatham Counties)
A field of six strong candidates vies for the two seats in this nonpartisan race.
We endorse one of the incumbents, Carl R. Fox, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Easley in March 2005. Fox was an elected district attorney for the town of Chapel Hill for 20 years, one of the first African-American district attorneys in the state (Easley is inclined to appoint criminal prosecutors to be judges). He has a reputation for fairness and even temperament, and in a little more than a year on the court he has demonstrated as much. Fox recognizes the need to treat those who appear before the court with dignity. He believes in alternative forms of sentencing when appropriate, and he keeps the judicial calendar moving along at a healthy pace. Fox is doing a fine job and we hope to see him stay on the bench.
Among the challengers, we endorse Adam Stein. Law students in North Carolina are already familiar with Stein's work as a civil rights lawyer. In 1967 he co-founded the first integrated law firm in the state. He has worked on more than 50 school desegregation cases, and he argued three different civil rights cases before the United State Supreme Court (and won). But his career has always been in North Carolina--he's appeared in the courtrooms of more than half of the counties in the state and has worked to improve the quality of public defense for indigent clients.
If elected, Stein will have to retire less than three years into his eight-year term because of the state's mandatory retirement age of 72. But he could continue to serve as a recalled Superior Court Judge throughout the rest of that term, which means both that the governor would appoint his successor and that Orange and Chatham counties would have a third judge on hand. Stein's unparalleled experience would have made him an excellent N.C. Supreme Court judge; it puts him head and shoulders above any other candidate for this seat. (Full disclosure: He is also a longtime shareholder in the parent company of the Independent Weekly.)
Charles (Chuck) Anderson, an elected district court judge for the past 10 years, has more experience as a judge than any other candidate and would be excellent in Superior Court. Well respected for his fairness and decency with a particularly good reputation in cases involving child welfare and domestic violence, Anderson has actively improved the administration of justice in both criminal and civil cases. Noticing problems with child custody cases, for instance, he helped create the Guardian Ad Litem and Parent Coordinator Programs to better protect the best interests of children. Luckily, if he loses this race, he will stay on the District Court. We hope whoever is governor in 2009 strongly considers appointing Anderson to Superior Court.
The other incumbent, Allen Baddour, was appointed by Easley in February. While Baddour is a fine judge, his appointment at the age of 34 is seen by many as political--he comes from a family of successful North Carolina politicians. Baddour is smart and conscientious, with experience as both a criminal defense attorney and a prosecutor. We believe he has an excellent legal career ahead of him and he would make a very good District Court judge.
Kenneth B. Oettinger is an attorney in private practice with 35 years of experience in both civil and criminal cases. He has argued before the N.C. Supreme and Appellate Courts and before Superior Courts in 30 counties across the state.
Michael W. Patrick is also an attorney in private practice, in both civil and criminal cases. He has defended indigent clients throughout his 25-year career, and he has served on the boards of various state legal associations to better educate the public about legal rights and the court system.