I watched with interest the forum on cable TV of three Mount Airy Council candidates moderated by Times Editor Bob Blubaugh on March 24 and with their responses presented in the Times in print and online, March 31. The candidates at the forum were Steve Domotor, Heather Hobbs, and Lynne Galleti. An earlier nominated candidate dropped out.
The good news is that there are no bad candidates, each has strengths and weaknesses, and each would do a credible job.
I served on the Council for 24 years and watched us grow from about 3,500 people to about 10,000 people today. Things have changed dramatically. In 1988 when first elected, we had only a few committees, and council members were actual “Department Heads.” I once was the zoning administrator, had a big hand in the 2003 Master Plan, supervised the Planning Department, and served as a voting member of the Planning Commission concurrently. Our attorney pointed out in the early 2000s that that wasn’t a good idea, and all employees then reported to the mayor and now to the town manager.
On the one hand you had your foot right on the throttle, and you were rated more on productivity and not screwing up. I couldn’t walk into a store without a crowd gathering and asking questions or more likely making a complaint. But some mistakes were made as well, e.g. severe overgrowth.
There are now many dozens of committees, panels, and boards — some with competing agendas — and probably a significant number of town residents have served on these town sponsored groups.
The folks running for council have served on these, some as chairs, and have a fair understanding of how the town functions. In 1988, about half of the town residents voted in a very spirited and contested election. Now it’s roughly 5% voting in the last pre-pandemic election in 2019. Although a lot of signs and interest have recently sprung up.
These numerous committees, boards and commissions — often each group sees itself as semi-autonomous — and diverse opinions makes it difficult to achieve overall consensus objectives, as there is this a well-intended body of educated and often passionate residents for a community of only 10,000 people. Not to mention all of the things swirling around on social media. But it’s a Rubik’s Cube, often bedeviling progress. The council is still the ultimate governing body, although the influence of the mayor can be important and seems to be growing.
The Mount Airy ZIP code is roughly 30,000 people, sits atop several steep ridges and includes two counties — and many who live outside our boundaries consider themselves “Town” residents. They bring forth their opinions as options to going to either county. In part, this may be the real lesson, coupled with more stay at home working people and less demand for a business park, resulting from the recent Leishear-Harrison Annexation falling apart.
The fallout of this complex annexation — which I personally thought had more cons, e.g. stretching traffic congestion, than pros — has now put pressure back to the town to show positive industrial/commercial growth for the business community with a very limited venue to do this.
By the way, the economy of the town is in good shape because of our inflated residential tax base and a well-earned very conservative fiscal management approach. It doesn’t need additional revenues but must diligently continue on the fiscally conservative approach that has worked so well to date. Both counties jealously guard this good tax-paying base, damning us to eternal division in that regard.
So the challenge for the new council is to learn to work together, attend a lot of meetings, listen to a lot of conflicting input, and steer a course through all of the political traffic. Actual traffic is a big — perhaps the biggest — problem, too.
Current Council President Larry Hushour did an exemplary job of doing just that, but now he is running for mayor against a very popular three-term incumbent, Pat Rockinberg, who has learned to deep dive into things. So either way we lost at least half of our leadership and possibly most of it for a while. We must figure out not only who has the right stuff for being on the council, but who will fill Hushour’s shoes if he either loses or has his hands tied until he figures out the many diverse strands of the mayor’s role.
In my experience it often takes a full four-year term or longer to unravel and become effective in our “weak mayor” system, the mayor not having a vote on the council and letting the Town Manager and staff do most of the day-to-day business. Likely candidates to lead the council are either Pamela Reed or Jason Poirier, as I size up their desire to do this job.
So, surprisingly, there is a lot at stake. So Mount Airy residents should read up and vote on May 3.
Dave Pyatt writes from Mount Airy. Reach him at DPyatt2@verizon.net.