A Wake County commissioner who lost his bid for re-election this week says a statement made from some of his fellow leaders was an "unprecedented" attack, and he apologized to supporters of a proposed park that has been the subject of the dispute.
Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman made his comments during Wednesday's county board meeting, just one day after Tuesday's contentious Democratic primary in which he lost to challenger Susan Evans.
"I think it's an unprecedented thing that has occurred in terms of the attack from several commissioners on this project and it is not befitting of this board of commissioners," he said.
With his voice breaking during moments, Portman said his integrity and those other commissioners who supported the purchase of the former Crooked Creek Golf Course for a park outside of Fuquay-Varina, should not be called into question. The park became a flash point during the bitter primary.
Commissioner Chairwoman Jessica Holmes said she anticipated that there would be emotional responses after the primary but that she expected commissioners to continue working in a respectful and professional manner and in the best interests of the county.
"Mr. Portman is one of those individuals who doesn't take personal responsibility for his own behavior and today showed that he was acting out like a wounded child," she said in an interview after Wednesday's meeting. "And it was very unbecoming."
Portman was referring to a statement in which commissioners Greg Ford, James West and Holmes asked the other four commissioners to condemn and distance themselves from a so-called "pay-to-play" campaign event. The statement was sent in early April after a social media post surfaced asking park proponents to support the re-election campaigns of commissioners Matt Calabria, John Burns, Sig Hutchinson and Portman, all of whom who were facing challengers in the primary.
Portman and Burns were both defeated, while Hutchinson and Calabria were successful in securing the Democratic nomination. They both face Republican challengers this fall.
Those four commissioners voted in favor of moving forward with the purchase of the former golf course for a park, called the South Wake Park Project. No money has been allocated for the purchase, and a second vote is still needed once the conditions of the purchase have been met. It's expected to cost $4 million to purchase the park from The Conservation Fund and about $23 million in total to buy, plan and develop the park.
The park sparked at least one campaign mailer and website criticizing the commissioners, saying the money could have been spent on education, housing or recruiting jobs. The mailer was funded by Wake Citizens for Good Government Political Action Committee, which was funded and founded by liberal activist Dean Debnam, who was vocal of his support for the Democratic challengers in the primary.
Portman made his comments during the public comments portion of Wednesday's meeting after Ron Nawojczyk, an organizer of the South Wake Park Project, spoke.
"It saddens me and disappoints me that two members of this board have kind of chosen to villainize this opportunity and our organization," Nawojczyk said, referring to Holmes and Ford. "And basically insinuating that we were trying to buy votes in order to make this happen. It's fairly disturbing. I understand you may not all see the positive benefits that opportunity affords the county's citizens. but, to me, it's very disingenuous to keep referring this to a bail-out and as a failed golf course."
After the meeting, Portman said it was almost "Trump-like" for elected officials to criticize private citizens and to claim their colleagues are engaging in unethical behavior.
"It's the most unprofessional thing I have ever seen in my 20 years of serving on various boards," he said. "I have never seen anyone else ever do this."
Wednesday's meeting, which included the county manager's recommended budget for the coming year, continued to be tense. At one point during a discussion about providing funding for affordable housing, Portman asked a series of questions about the projects and how an amendment to a motion was going to be made.
"Mr. Manager, could you, I'm not sure what's the word, update Commissioner Portman about how county government works?" Holmes said.
Several commissioners made audible complaints after the comment, with Hutchinson saying the comment wasn't called for.
"That comment is inappropriate, madam chair," he said. "We don't need that."
Portman called the comment snide after the meeting and said this was the aftermath of poor behavior leading up to and during the primary.
At the end of the meeting, Burns said the commissioners were "all in this together" and that he hoped the board could move forward.
"I think it is incumbent on all of us to continue to do our business professionally and with respect for each other," he said. "And I think, for the large part and with very rare exception, this board has always done that."