An election is the only fix for dysfunctional Wake County commissioners

February 12, 2014 

Most people who’ve observed the work of Wake County commissioners in the past few years have a pretty good idea of where everyone stands:

Republican Paul Coble, the former Raleigh mayor, seems to delight in resisting what he considers “liberal” ideas on taxes and spending. He is deeply skeptical, for instance, about asking voters to approve a new tax to support mass transit, particularly rail transit.

Joe Bryan, the Republican former Knightdale mayor, is the “good cop” to Coble’s bad cop. At times, Bryan tries to bring differing sides together. But Bryan of late has enlisted in the Coble forces when it comes to transit, to the county’s disadvantage. The same is true of Republican Tony Gurley.

Veteran Commissioner Betty Lou Ward is the reliable liberal, the good Democrat, a predictable foe for Coble and Bryan. She’s tough, but soft-spoken. She’s well-informed and seems to know her business. James West, the former Raleigh City Council member, generally aligns himself with Ward.

Caroline Sullivan, also a Democrat, is quick-witted, articulate and an effective opponent for Coble.

An then there’s Phil Matthews, the former salesman, radio personality, independent businessman and veteran of the Garner town board.

Now Matthews is the commissioners’ chairman, and he could, if he dared to differ from some of the hidebound views of his fellow Republicans, shake things up, for the good. But he seems destined to be just a new driver along the same anti-tax course that in the long run will cost the county by delaying the investments that need to be made now.

It appears Matthews will stay true to opposing transit options, feuding with the county school board run by Democrats (he says he may hold off on some projects already approved as part of the last school bond) and preaching about lower taxes.

One could hope that Matthews would dare to be different, bringing some common sense and regional vision to the job. But there’s little chance of that. Coble is likely to be the behind-the-scenes navigator making sure Matthews hits all the stoplights. Stop transit. Stop school progress. Stop tax increases.

It’s hardly a healthy attitude for leaders in a growing county with a lot of potential for more growth. Notably, the Research Triangle Park Foundation, which runs that monument to public-private cooperation in the name of scientific research and the exploration of ideas, recently unveiled an exciting plan for the park’s future.

The expansion of the park, led by the foundation’s president and CEO Bob Geolas, is in some ways dependent upon rail service in established corridors. The park can get things done without it, but such service would add a new dimension to the park’s potential.

Yet Matthews, Coble, Bryan and Gurley continue to have all the foresight of Mr. Magoo. They seem to believe that because there’s not enough population density in the Triangle to make mass transit options profitable from Day One, it’s not worth investing in a transit tax for the county. Orange and Durham counties have already approved new taxes to support public transit. It is a disservice to Wake County residents that these Republicans decline to allow the people even to vote on a tax that could really get regional rail going.

There is, thankfully, a solution to the disregard for the people’s opinion, and that is for the people to render that opinion through the ballot. This they can do this year, when all four Republican commissioners are up for re-election.

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