About 30 years ago, Betty Lou Ward was a PTA mom in Raleigh who got involved in local politics because she wanted nicer parks.
On Monday, Ward retired from a 28-year career on the Wake County Board of Commissioners as one of its longest-serving, most-accomplished members. And Ward’s peers on the board ensured that her name will forever be linked to the artworks the board installs at big projects like parks and libraries throughout the county.
County commissioners on Monday created the Betty Lou Ward Public Art Ordinance, allowing the board to spend money for public art on capital projects that exceed $1 million. The new rule envisions the county spending up to $500,000 on public art between 2017 and 2023, so long as it spends $50 million on capital projects.
Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, vice chairman of the board, read a resolution the board wrote honoring Ward.
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“You embody the selfless servant who’s doing this work because you want to make the county a better place,” Hutchinson said.
Ward, who represents northwest Wake in District 6, first ran for the Wake Board of Commissioners on a platform of improving schools and local parks, she recalled Tuesday. Since then she’s pushed for a range of Democratic priorities, including education funding, environmental protections, transit and the arts.
During her time as commissioner Ward served as chair of the board, president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and president of the National Association of Counties. In 2011, the state county commissioners’ association inducted Ward into its Hall of Fame.
Ward, now 80, wanted to retire before the 2012 election, board chairman James West said Monday. But at the time, Republicans held a majority on the board.
“We begged her not to because we needed someone that we knew would win,” West said with a laugh.
In April 2015, six months after Democrats captured every seat on the board, Ward announced her plans to retire. She’ll be replaced by former educator Greg Ford, who defeated Republican John Odom this month.
Ward was born in Roxboro, raised in Raleigh and earned a nursing certificate in Kansas after moving there with her husband. They moved back years later, and Ward became interested in local politics while participating in and leading the PTAs at schools her children attended.
She served on Raleigh’s planning and appearance commissions before running for office, experiences she recalls as vital for her political career.
“Get involved,” Ward said Tuesday, after being asked how young women could follow in her footsteps. “There are loads of places you can serve and gain knowledge. It was very beneficial to me and made a big difference.”
As a woman and Democrat, Ward was often in the minority on the Wake board. But she maintained good standing among her constituents and Republican peers on the board because she treated people with respect and didn’t hold grudges.
In 2009, Republican commissioners broke a political deadlock and voted for their pick as board chairman after Ward took an unexcused bathroom break. The move prompted outrage from other commissioners and some Wake residents.
Ward was disappointed but not bitter. “It happens in the world of politics,” she told The N&O at the time. “There’s no need to get bent out of shape over it.”
Yevonne Brannon met Ward through the local PTA meetings in 1980 and later went on to serve on the Board of Commissioners with her from 1996 to 2000. She describes Ward as a mediator and problem solver.
“I think she is the kind of person that genuinely cares about human kind, a very positive attitude and can get you involved in amazing things,” Brannon said. She added that Ward should be noted as the board’s “strongest, most consistent advocate for teachers and children that this county has ever had.”
“From the moment I met her, she was interested in how we could get the very best teachers,” Brannon said.
Earlier this year when the board voted to boost school funding by $24 million, Ward was one of only two commissioners who tried to award $5 million more. She pushed for more school funding last year, too, lobbying her peers to raise the property tax rate by 3.9 cents per $100 in valuation instead of the approved 3.65-cent increase.
She consistently voted to keep the environment, too, even as her Democratic colleagues wavered during tough economic times.
In 2011, she was one of only two commissioners who opposed a move by the rest of the board to scrap a county rule requiring residential developers to create open space or contribute to a fund that pays for it elsewhere.
West, the commissioners chairman, joked Monday that Ward’s passion for local issues might lead her back to a microphone in front of the county commissioners. Ward doesn’t see that happening.
Ward loves to read “anything that’s well-written,” she says. And too often these last few years, she said, governing has interrupted her reading.
“I look forward to not being responsible for so many things,” Ward said.