CAPE CARTERET — Four of the six candidates seeking seats on the town board of commissioners said Friday night they are satisfied with the town’s council-manager form of government.
Speaking in response to a “yes-no” question from the audience during a forum held around the swimming pool in the Cape Point development, mayoral candidate Will Baker and commission candidates Jim Nalitz, Jeff Waters and Don Miller said “yes.”
Mayoral candidate Charlie Evans said “no,” as did commission candidate Patricia Ruddiman.
The event, organized by the Cape Point Homeowners’ Association and moderated by association member Smoke Betts, drew a crowd of about 40 people on a chilly but clear night.
In addition to the two seeking the mayoral seat of outgoing Mayor Dave Fowler, the four commission candidates are seeking one of three empty seats on the panel, currently occupied by Mr. Evans, Mr. Miller and Minnie Truax. Neither Ms. Truax nor Mayor Fowler filed for reelection. Mr. Evans is running for mayor and is opposed by newcomer Mr. Baker.
Those seeking the three commission seats are incumbent Mr. Miller and newcomers Mr. Nailitz, Ms. Ruddiman and Mr. Waters.
The election ballot also includes a referendum on whether the town should switch from the council-manager form of government, under a town manager, back to a mayor-council form, in which an administrator operates but commissioners oversee the departments.
That issue arose in 2018, when the board voted 3-2 to switch from a town administrator to a town manager form of government and to elevate then-Administrator Zach Steffey to manager.
Some residents, upset by that decision and by a split vote to dismiss then-Police Chief Tony Rivera, mounted a petition drive to force a referendum on the question.
The board vote in 2018 used a provision in state General Statutes to enact the charter change. Another option was to call for a referendum.
The residents, led by Terri Ashby and Ms. Ruddiman, obtained enough signatures on the petition to force a referendum in November 2018, but a commission majority twice rejected the petition as invalid on technical grounds, based, it said, on timing and initially incomplete documents. After months of wrangling, the board voted unanimously in October 2018 to adopt an ordinance scheduling the referendum on its own initiative.
Among those seeking election in November, Mr. Miller voted against the charter change and police chief dismissal, but voted for Mr. Steffey’s promotion from administrator to manager. Mr. Evans voted against the charter change, the promotion of Mr. Steffey and the dismissal of the police chief.
Earlier in the forum Friday, during their opening statements, several of the candidates spoke in more detail on the form of government issue.
Mr. Evans, for example, said one of his goals as mayor would be to reestablish trust between elected officials and residents. There has been some “disrespect and animosity” over the decisions, he said, and trust must be reestablished so the town can move forward.
Mr. Nalitz said he’d seen improvements in the town since the board adopted the manager system and urged voters to reject the reversion to administrator.
Ms. Ruddiman said she favors the administrator system, in part because under the manager system, the manager had the power to hire and fire all employees. But the key, she said, is taxpayers deserved a say in the issue from the outset.
Mr. Waters said he worked under both systems as a police officer and chief of police in Emerald Isle and saw benefits and downsides to both.
“Both can work for (Cape Carteret),” he said. But he added that under a manager system, department heads only have one person to report to – the manager – while under the other system, department heads report to a commissioner, who can change.
All of the candidates, however, pledged they would work with whatever system emerges from the referendum.
Other questions posed during the forum touched on the possibility of a property tax increase, the size and effectiveness of the police department, the need to attract new businesses to increase the tax base and completion of the Cape Carteret Trail, an as-yet unfinished system of bike and pedestrian paths along Highway 24, Highway 58 and Taylor Notion Road.
All of the candidates said they’d hate to raise the property tax rate – currently 21.25 cents per $100 of assessed value – but several said they thought it might be necessary, possibly soon, if the town is going to continue to provide services.
Ms. Ruddiman talked of the need for road repairs, drainage improvements and equipment for departments, including police. A tax increase, she said, is almost surely going to be needed at some point.
Mr. Evans said the town might be able to get by with “creative budgeting,” including financing equipment purchases, and a more robust capital improvement plan.
Mr. Baker said he’d like to see that plan extended from five to 25 years, so needed purchases aren’t a “big smack in the pocket.”
Mr. Nalitz noted the cost of goods and services continually rises, so “even if we never buy another thing, expenses go up.”
Mr. Miller also talked of rising expenses and the need to keep good employees and equipment. Any tax increase, he said, should be only for necessities, not for “want-to-haves.”
Mr. Waters flatly said he was not in favor of a tax increase and he’d “help the manager seek out funds” through grants.
As for the police department, Mr. Waters said he believes the current size of the force – seven full-time officers, including the chief – is adequate for the town’s population and geographic size, but he also said he believes it can’t get any smaller, because of the influx of summer visitors.
Mr. Miller, a former Cape Carteret police chief, agreed.
“But,” he added, “we have to make sure (the officers) are taken care of and have the training and equipment they need. If we do that, they’ll give you 110 percent.”
Most of the candidates agreed the town needs a sewer system in order to attract new businesses; without sewer, it’s unlikely there will be major new businesses. They all admitted it would be very expensive, though, and the town would need help to afford it.
Mr. Baker posed the idea of working with other towns, such as Cedar Point or even the Onslow County Water and Sewer Authority, which serves nearby Swansboro.
Mr. Evans said it’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Private sewer companies won’t serve the town unless there is real demand, but businesses are necessary to create the demand and most won’t come in without sewer.
Ms. Ruddiman said another problem is most of the town’s vacant property is tied up in large tracts and the owners often don’t appear interested in selling pieces.
Mr. Nalitz said the town should try to attract more residential developments, such as a senior citizens’ community or an upscale motor home park, because residential uses can get by on septic tanks or privately owned package waste treatment plans.
Mr. Miller said he thought given the absence of sewer, it would be good if the town could attract some smaller businesses, such as clothing stores, that would enable residents to do more of their shopping in town.
Most of the candidates said the town needs to find a way to raise the money to complete the trail through grants and donations, but conceded it’s been difficult.
Several said the town should not spend any more money on the trail and it should be completed with grants or donations.
The town put in $125,000 several years ago and the county matched that.
Mr. Nalitz said some town residents have said they won’t use the trail along Highway 24 because it’s too difficult and unsafe to cross the highway from the neighborhoods on the other side, like Old Cape Carteret and Bayshore Park.
“I hope some money comes from somewhere,” he said, “but we should not spend another dime of taxpayer money on it.”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.