RALEIGH — Republicans and Democrats running for the four open seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners size up the county’s fortunes like people who have just watched the same movie but disagree completely on what it’s about.
The Republicans – all incumbents – point to the county’s excellent credit rating, its national accolades and its constant population growth as signs that local leaders have been doing a great job and should stay the course.
The Democrats trying to unseat them cite the county’s low per-pupil spending and inaction on public transit and see a place whose leadership refuses to invest in the future, jeopardizing the high quality of life that has been Wake’s draw.
Voters will decide in a little more than a month which candidates’ vision aligns best with their own.
While many residents may not realize it, the seven members of the board of commissioners have a profound influence on daily life in the county.
“The full range of services that we depend on so much – getting up in the morning, heading to the shower and expecting water to be there, sending the kids off to school, the folks who inspect your restaurants and make sure buildings are built to code – those are all local government functions,” said David Ammons, a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina.
Setting the goals
While the board is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff’s Office or the libraries, for instance, it directs the county manager and his staff, who are. In Wake County, commissioners essentially serve the same role as members of the board of directors at a $1 billion corporation, with the county manager in the role of chief executive.
“As that board makes determinations about what’s important for the county, that has a major impact on what programs get funded more generously and which ones are going to be a lower priority for funding and support,” Ammons said.
How any one member of the board feels – and votes – on issues can determine county policy, at least in the short run.
In the course of a four-year term on the board, a member may vote hundreds of times, on mostly routine matters that get unanimous approval. When there is philosophical disagreement among the members, it generally follows party lines. That’s happened recently, as board members have debated matters including:
• How much the county should contribute to public-school teacher pay.
• How to proceed with building schools since voters approved the sale of $810 million in bonds last year.
• Whether to expand the county’s bus system, build trains or light rail to reduce traffic congestion.
A new day?
Republicans have won most of those arguments since they took the majority on the board in 2010.
If even one of the four Republicans whose seat is open this year loses, Democrats will regain the majority and, according to the candidates, change the direction for the county.
If that happens, “It’s a new day for Wake County,” said Sig Hutchinson, a Democrat who runs a consulting and professional speaking business and is running against incumbent Joe Bryan for the board’s District 1 seat. “We will begin from Day 1 working with our school system, and bring it back to the nationally recognized status we once had.
“We’ll work with our regional and local partners to move forward on transit. And we’ll initiate quality-of-life issues such as working with the municipalities to leverage more money for parks, greenways and open space, and on water quality and quantity.”
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