The first attempt to hold a free crash course for residents on how their local government works fell through after just one person had signed up by Monday, the deadline to register.
It was merely the latest instance of a longstanding public apathy toward town affairs in Zebulon.
Town leaders had indicated they would only hold Zebulon’s citizens academy if a minimum of about 10 residents showed interest – enough interest to make holding the seven-week course worthwhile.
“It’s obviously not worth holding it for just one person,” said Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny, who wanted to offer a course after hearing success stories from other local towns that have held them. “Its frustrating, it really is. It’s a real outreach here and just disappointing people are that ambivalent.”
The course had been advertised in newspaper articles, on local TV programming and on Zebulon’s website. The town also sent out notices along with water bills.
“The other towns that have done this just rave about its success and I thought this was a really great idea to do it in Zebulon,” Matheny said. “We’re just not getting a response.”
Zebulon has become familiar with that ambivalence in recent years.
Except in cases where people would be directly affected by a matter being brought before commissioners, the audience at town board meetings generally consists exclusively of town department heads and staff. That’s largely been true even when state representatives have paid visits to town hall to provide annual updates on their goals and dealings within the General Assembly.
“It’s too bad, really. It’s the citizens’ town,” Matheny said. “We’re elected to look after it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be interested in what’s going on. Maybe people are just busy with other things, or they are just fine with government the way it is and they don’t care that much.
“It’s just like voting. The percentage of people that vote is actually pretty low, and it’s just a privilege to get to vote.”
There hasn’t been impressive interest from the public in serving on appointed or elected town boards, either.
First-term commissioner Glenn York is the only current member of the town board who has not served at least three terms. And only five individuals, including York, have challenged incumbents for a seat on the board since 2007.
Even Matheny, now in his sixth term as mayor, says he can’t remember a time he was challenged for his seat prior to 2013, when he ousted candidate Richard Poole. He said things were different when he ran for commissioner in Zebulon among a pack of 12-14 candidates.
“The board has been pretty stable and that’s good in one sense because if you have industry or a business looking at you, stability is an important thing,” the mayor said. “On the other hand, we’re all graying out. We’re not in our 40s. There’s going to be a change at some point and I don’t know who’s going to step up to the plate.
“I was hoping the Citizens Academy would form a pool of people who would get interested and might want to try to join a board, but it didn’t happen.”
Lisa Markland said the difficulty of keeping seats on appointed boards filled has been an ongoing trend throughout her 17 years as Zebulon’s town clerk.
Even now, there are two vacancies on the planning board: Lawrence Tickle moved out of town and opened a seat a few weeks ago and the other position has been vacant for about a year.
There has also been a vacancy on the Board of Adjustment since last June, when Erica Parsons stepped down after serving several terms. The town has two alternates who can fill that position while the town moves forward with creating a Unified Development Ordinance, which may change board structures and eliminate a need to replace Parsons.
“Every time we get a vacancy, we really have to look and search (for replacements),” Markland said. “The phone calls we make, a lot of times they’ll think about it, but we get more no’s than we do yes’s.”
Markland said sometimes people are just ready to rotate off an appointed board.
“It’s like everybody – people are busy and don’t want to give up their free time to serve, and that’s valid,” she said. “But I think a lot of people would like it if they tried it and got on a board. I think they would find it very informative and really enjoy it.”
The town does not plan to give up on the Citizens Academy just because the first attempt failed. Each department has already prepared a lesson plan hitting on the highlights of their operation for the course.
“Maybe we’ll go back and promote it again at the farmers market, (Zebulon) Night Out, the Zebulon Business Expo,” Markland said. “Well just try to promote it with a more face-to-face approach.”