The four Republicans hoping to keep their seats on the seven-member Wake County Board of Commissioners are facing criticism from Wake County town leaders – including fellow Republicans – ahead of Election Day.
Republican commissioners Paul Coble, Joe Bryan, Phil Matthews and Rich Gianni tout Wake County’s financial standing, low taxes and smart school planning as reasons the party should maintain control of the board.
But some Republican and independent officials in local towns say the GOP commissioners haven’t provided an adequate level of funding to build new schools and have been closed-minded on a range of other issues.
While some local Republican leaders remain diplomatic in their concerns about their fellow party members, stopping short of saying they won’t vote for them, a few are uncharacteristically vocal in their opposition. Their muted support, illustrating cracks in the county Republican party, comes during a pivotal moment for the county board. If just one Republican loses, control could shift to the Democrats.
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Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones, a registered Republican, said she supported Republicans in the last election, but not this year. She said she plans to vote for the four Democratic candidates, mostly because the Republican commissioners have created an “acrimonious” relationship with the Wake County school board and refused to allow residents to vote on a plan that would expand transit throughout the county.
“What the majority of the Board of Commissioners has done is said, ‘This is the way we want it to be, and if you don’t like it, tough because we’ve got four votes,’ ” Jones said.
“I know I’m not gonna agree with (Democrats) on everything. But they are more willing to have a conversation ... to sit down and talk to people,” she said. “I’m supporting those people that I think are going to do good things for the town of Wake Forest.”
The Wake Board of Commissioners is responsible for funding school construction. The Wake school board is responsible for deciding where to build the new schools.
Democratic challengers John Burns, Matt Calabria, Jessica Holmes and Sig Hutchinson – a mix of newcomers and experienced politicians – have said they will offer more support to schools and transit.
Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears, a longtime Republican who recently changed his registration to unaffiliated, said he supported the Republican majority in the last election but won’t this time.
Sears, who left the party after the Wake County GOP endorsed his opponent in the last mayoral election, said the transit plan should have been put on the ballot and that the county should have asked for more money in the last school bond referendum.
The Wake school board placed enrollment caps on Holly Springs’ only high school and all three of its elementary schools, meaning students who move into the those assignment zones aren’t guaranteed admission.
“The number one issue for me is the lack of (school) funding,” Sears said. “It’s hurting us in Holly Springs.”
Bryan, who represents eastern Wake on the board of commissioners, responded to comments by Jones and Sears by pointing out that the most recent school bond referendum was unanimously agreed upon by his board and the Democrat-controlled county school board.
“And I don’t think we get enough credit for the fact that our average teacher supplement is $6,500 a year, the largest of all 100 counties in North Carolina,” he said.
As for the draft transit plan authored by county staff in 2011, he said experts told the board the proposal wasn’t the best for the community, he said. Commissioners are now working to address transit needs “in a diligent manner,” he said.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the Republican leadership, we are part of the reason Wake County is so prosperous, and that can’t be denied,” Bryan said, adding that Wake is one of the few counties in the nation with a AAA bond rating.
Coble and Gianni didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Most town boards are nonpartisan, though candidates’ party affiliation is public record and may appear in campaign materials.
Still, while many Republican town leaders praised commissioners, some expressed quieter support for those seeking re-election.
“The county commission needs to fund the schools where they need it,” Cary Council member Don Frantz said. “I think they’ve done a relatively good job. I think they can do better.”
Morrisville Council member Michael Schlink said he defers to voters to determine whether the Republicans should stay in office. He said he thinks they’re governing “pretty well.”
“Maybe they’ve been a little tight with the purse strings, but to a lot of people, that appeals to them,” Schlink said.
In Holly Springs, which doesn’t have any Democrats on its Town Council, council members said they’re upset with Matthews, chairman of the commissioners, primarily because he didn’t vote to give the county money for an athletic complex the town is building.
Matthews, who represents southern Wake on the board, could have cast the swing vote to give money to Holly Springs when the three Democrats on the board made a motion to do so.
“Is Phil Matthews gonna pay us more attention? My gut instinct is that it’s gonna be the same old, same old if he gets re-elected,” said councilwoman Cheri Lee, a Republican. “I’d like to have a reason to trust my fellow Republicans. I’m just not sure I can do that this time.”
County Commissioners in August were considering spending nearly $8 million in available hotel and restaurant tax revenues on local projects. The board chose to award a total of $4.5 million to projects in Morrisville and Knightdale and keep the rest.
Holly Springs sought $2.8 million for the complex, which will be home to the Holly Springs Salamanders Coastal Plain League baseball team next spring.
Matthews, who referred to the Salamanders as a softball team, said Wednesday that the stadium didn’t meet the county’s requirements for boosting the economy. Wake County staff predicted the stadium would lead to an average of 5,400 hotel room rentals each year – about 5,000 less than commissioners desired.
“It came short of the standards,” Matthews said. “It was nothing against the town.”