The Mount Airy Town Council and Mayor meeting this week was a blend of triumphant returns, bittersweet farewells and business as usual.
Farewell, because it was Councilman Scott Strong’s final council meeting. Strong accepted a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he’ll be applying his engineering skills by building space-bound satellites for the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” Strong told the Times in a phone interview, as he drove part of the 1,900 miles to his new home. He’s excited to “shoot stuff into space,” but sad that he’s leaving Mount Airy and all the family and friends he’s developed.
“Everybody is either your neighbor or acquaintance,” he said of the town of about 10,000 residents. “I still remember the majority of the people, even if I only met them once. To remember almost 10,000 people in the town is quite an accomplishment.”
Strong was elected to the council in 2010 and was part-way through his third term as a councilman. He said he’ll miss serving the community, but is proud of the work he’s accomplished, saying he leaves Mount Airy a better place than when he was elected eight years ago.
“When you become a councilman in a small town, you pour your heart and soul into making the town a better place,” he said.
Strong said he was proud to have helped change the culture of the council, the relationship of how council members interact with each other and the mayor. It’s about focusing on the issues and making a positive change, rather than being tied strongly to personal beliefs, he said.
“We can discuss an item and whether we can agree on it or not,” he said, “when we’re done, we’re still all friends.
“It’s OK to disagree.”
Mount Airy Mayor Pat Rockinberg said he agreed that Strong’s legacy in Mount Airy will be tied to his role in bringing a “certain level of civility back to town council.”
“When you’re arguing, you’re not listening,” Rockinberg told the Times. “Scott was very respectful, mild-mannered.”
Strong was part of the town government when it created a Mount Airy Police Department, the Rails to Trails initiative and the Caboose Visitor Center in downtown.
He has appreciated “watching the town grow from what it was to what it is,” Strong said. And he looks forward to visiting friends and family, and seeing it progress further.
“It’ll be interesting to see what has changed,” Strong said. “Like going away to college and coming back.”
If Strong visits Mount Airy over the next few years, it’s likely that he’ll return to a familiar face at the helm of the city.
Rockinberg was present Monday for his first mayor-council meeting since he returned from undergoing a surgical procedure to combat esophageal cancer. Rockinberg announced the diagnosis in February.
“The original prognosis was a bit bleak,” Rockinberg said. But thanks to the support from the community and “an excellent surgical and oncology team at Johns Hopkins, I’m happy to report at this time I am disease-free.”
He said doctors gave him a 20 percent chance to beat cancer.
To be be cancer-free “is amazing,” he said. “I’m extremely humbled and blessed to have received the prayers and support of the community.”
Town Council President Peter Helt, who assumed the role of temporary mayor in Rockinberg’s absence, said the mayor “looked really well” at Monday’s meeting.
Rockinberg endured chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
“I’m sore,” he said. “Surgery’s slowed me up. I move a little slower, but mentally I’m strong — I just can’t physically lift what I used to.”
Rockinberg returned just in time for Mount Airy’s first special election. The town will have to fill a council seat vacated by Strong’s departure.
Mount Airy has three months from the effective date of Strong’s resignation on Monday, July 9, to fill the vacancy. Town Hall will accept nominations between July 23 and July 30. Nominations may be dropped off or mailed to town hall at 110 S. Main St., Mount Airy, MD 21771.
Considering the mayor and council had appropriated money for one election in the fiscal year 2019 budget, which it passed May 7, the council introduced a budget amendment during Monday’s meeting.
It added $4,207 to the town’s General Fund Operating Budget — $707 to pay election workers and $3,500 for election expenses, like voting machines and staff.
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The election will be held in September, according to council documents.