Cary council finally fills vacancy

Erv Portman, who owns a manufacturing company, is appointed after seven months of indecision

Staff WriterFebruary 9, 2007 

— The town's newest council member was appointed Thursday after behind-the-scenes politics inspired his new colleagues to end their months-old standoff.

Council members said they were not certain before their meeting that they would appoint Erv Portman. Most, though, knew that they would leave Town Hall with a replacement for former council member Mike Joyce, who resigned in July.

Portman, owner of precision manufacturing company Weststar, won out over Don Hyatt, the carypolitics.org Web master, by an accident of timing. During the flurry of motions and cross-motions Thursday night, Portman's name was barked out before Hyatt's. Council members say both men had enough backers to win the seat.

Portman missed the action because he was flying home from Costa Rica. His wife, Susan, said he would have to wait until he landed to find out that Joyce's at-large council seat was his by a 5-1 vote.

"It's going to be the first thing he asks once he gets off the plane," his wife said. "Once he hears the news, he'll probably be up all night."

Portman, 51, has been a serious candidate for the job for months, primarily because he served on the town's planning and zoning committee and was a member of a committee studying school reassignment in 2002.

He has been waiting since September, when the council split 3-3 between him and another candidate, pharmaceutical executive Dick Domann. He lost his patience with the process after the standoff extended into December.

"Flip a coin, have a town forum and let the citizens ask us both questions and then vote," he said at the time. "There are a lot of ways to creatively solve this impasse, and there's nothing being done to do it."

By the start of the year, most of the town's six council members were fuming, too. Negotiations had stalled, and some thought they might have to leave the seat vacant until the fall election.

What shook things up

That all changed after the council came close to canceling its meeting Jan. 25 for lack of a quorum. Council member Jack Smith said that embarrassing near-mishap made him realize that "we have to get this fixed."

So over the next couple of weeks, council members traded phone calls, taking their once-open candidate search behind the scenes.

Smith said he found most of the council members willing to discuss a compromise.

Portman was not an immediate choice, said Smith and council member Nels Roseland. He became a near-consensus candidate only after Smith wangled four potential votes for Hyatt, the carypolitics.org Web master, forcing Mayor Ernie McAlister and council member Jennifer Robinson to choose between Hyatt and Portman.

The prospect of having Hyatt on the council led McAlister and Robinson, both Republicans, to forgo their previous opposition to Portman, a registered Democrat. Robinson openly opposed appointing Hyatt; McAlister declined to discuss his decision.

Portman, McAlister said, "was one of the top two candidates" and "it became obvious that Erv was the one who could get closest to consensus."

Portman will keep his council seat through the town's fall elections. If he wants to keep it after that, he will have to run for re-election and win a lot more than five votes.

Staff writer Toby Coleman can be reached at 829-8937 or toby.coleman@newsobserver.com.

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