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Citizen activists seek seats 

The sequel to Chatham County's election drama of 2002 is already shaping up to be an interesting show, and citizen activists are signing up for leading roles.

Two of the five county commissioner seats are up for grabs this year, with a primary slated for July and a general election in November.

Two first-time candidates and a political action committee have emerged from the grassroots efforts that have sprung up around growth-control issues since the last election two years ago, when development-friendly candidates won the three other seats in the most contentious race in recent county history. The election outcome launched a landslide of residential and commercial building projects and sparked public outrage over the influence of money in politics and the costs of sprawl. (See "Paradise Tossed," January 7, 2004, www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-01-07/cover.html)

Mike Cross, a co-founder of the county's first and most active organized citizens' group, intends to run for the District 2 seat being vacated by Commissioner Margaret Pollard. Pollard has chosen not to seek re-election, while her District 1 colleague Bob Atwater, who has spoken up the most vociferously against unchecked growth on the five-member board but has recently suffered some health problems, has not yet announced his intentions.

Cross co-founded the Southeast Chatham Advisory Council in Moncure and has played key leadership roles within the group since, including serving as president until a few weeks ago, when he stepped down to seek a commissioner's seat.

A retired Navy officer and Vietnam vet who now owns a small business making signs, Cross is a sixth-generation resident of Chatham County who got involved in local politics four years ago, in the wake of a battle over a proposed dump in Moncure.

"We came to this courthouse over the Waste Industries proposal, and I saw that's not any way to get anything done--mobs of people yelling," he says, waving toward the downtown judicial building from a restaurant across the traffic circle. "It looked great for the TV cameras, but not much was actually getting done."

Soon after that, in February 2001, Cross and a partner organized SCAC to provide a more methodical approach to citizen input in government issues. The group counts among its successes projects big and small, many of them centered on improving and protecting the environment in the southeast end of the county, which many pollution-heavy industries call home. Members have kept the waste dump proposal at bay, hosted an air and water quality conference that included congenial collaboration with local industries, and successfully fought a rezoning for a grease plant. They have also hosted back-to-school lunches for local teachers, breast-cancer screenings and candidate forums. This month, SCAC named Cross its "Citizen of the Year."

The official period for candidates to file their intention to run with the county elections board begins April 26, but Cross and one competitor for the Democratic primary have already filed preliminary campaign reports with the elections board, says elections chief Dawn Stumpf. Former Pittsboro mayor and retired business owner Mary Wallace announced her candidacy for the District 2 seat last month.

In District 1, which encompasses the northeast portion of the county, the recent groundswell of citizen activism has launched another grassroots leader, Patrick Barnes. Barnes, a Democrat who founded Chatham United to fight the town of Cary's planning efforts across the county line last year, has not formally announced his candidacy but has filed campaign paperwork indicating he plans to run for Atwater's seat in District 1.

Cross' group and Barnes' group are two of the three citizen groups that have joined in a coalition with another group, Chatham Citizens for Effective Communities, to form a new political action committee that's also getting involved in the commissioners and school board races this spring.

The Chatham Coalition announced its creation March 20, with plans to support local candidates who back its platform of smart growth, quality economic development, excellent schools and open government that encourages citizen participation.

According a statement from chairman Jeffrey Starkweather, a Pittsboro attorney, the new coalition plans to raise money for advertising and direct support of candidates and pledges to run an "issue-oriented, citizens campaign to counter negative advertising and undue influence of outside forces," a reference to the sprawl lobby that's been exerting steady pressure on county leaders since the last election.

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