Eastern Wake: Opinion

Column: Retreat season gives towns time to set priorities

By Johnny Whitfield

ehyman@newsobserver.com

It’s retreat season. No, I’m not talking about the Carolina Panthers who didn’t make the playoffs after a sterling Super Bowl season last year. I’m thinking about that time of year when local government leaders get together for a day or two and assess the work that’s been done midway through the fiscal year and start to think about their priorities for the upcoming year.

Town leaders in Wendell, Knightdale and Garner are all making plans for retreats in the next weeks.

To some degree, the topics they will discuss differ, as one might expect. Garner leaders are contemplating what to include in the next phase of the town’s $35 million bond program. In Wendell, there’s talk of planning and zoning issues. In Knightdale, money figures to be a big part of the conversation.

There are also topics elected leaders will discuss no matter which town they are from, including budgetary issues and economic development. Here’s another topic I hope each of them will take up in some form or another: what to do about the legislature?

Town commissioners and council members have, for many years, been able to head off bills that were detrimental to their operation of the town they govern. But they’ve been outflanked in recent years because of a legislature that wants to consolidate as much power in that chamber as possible. The General Assembly has, in no particular order, limited towns’ ability to grow by making it nearly impossible to annex land without the property owner’s asking for it, eviscerated the ability of towns and cities to regulate home designs in their communities and stripped towns of revenue sources such as the privilege tax on new businesses.

In Wake County, legislators have reworked school board and county commissioners district lines, pitting incumbents against each other in some cases. In Asheville, the state took away the city’s ability to operate its own water system and in Charlotte, they General Assembly took away the responsibility for managing the airport.

Those moves, of course, don’t even touch the legislation in HB2, which did a lot more than just restrict bathroom use. That law also prevents towns and cities from passing similar legislation and it prevents local governments from setting their own minimum wage requirements for private employers.

There’s not much sentiment in the General Assembly right now among legislators to listen to the concerns of town lawmakers. Leaders of North Carolina’s largest cities have spoken out about these changes and a few who lead smaller towns (think Carrboro and Wake Forest) have publicly voiced their concerns, but there has been no organized effort on the part of cities and towns to fight back against the Draconian actions of the legislature.

So what’s a town like Garner or Knightdale supposed to do? Well, there is strength in numbers. All our local communities are members of the N.C. League of Municipalities and Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny leads that organization this year. It would be good to see that group become more vocal, but honestly, the League of Municipalities is an invisible organization to most people.

Instead, commissioners and council members ought to be speaking out more and more about the legislature’s strangulation of towns. Every time you turn around, mayors, council members and commissioners are being invited to public events from charity programs to ribbon cuttings to local civic clubs. Elected leaders should use that bully pulpit to make residents aware of how the changes in the General Assembly affect these towns and, ultimately, the residents who live here.

And they should be letting those within range of their voices know who their General Assembly leaders are and asking them at every turn to call and write their legislators seeking a rollback on some of the punitive steps the legislature has taken.

If town leaders hope to get past the pettiness of the General Assembly, it’s going to take more than just their voices talking on Meet Your Legislator Day at the State House. It’s going to take an effective, well-thought-out effort by town leaders to overcome the power-hungry folks in Raleigh. And that would make for a wise topic of conversation at any retreat.

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