Cape Carteret — When Will Baker was running for mayor last fall, his supporters sometimes used the slogan, “Will of the people.”
Maybe they meant Mr. Baker was a man of the people, something he believed and believes he is, as he walks around town in flowery casual shirts or T-shirts and often a cap. Or maybe those supporters meant it was the “Will of the people” that Mr. Baker get elected.
Turned out the latter meaning was right, barely. He prevailed over his opponent, then-town commissioner Charlie Evans, by a single vote.
“It’s like the old joke about the dog chasing the car,” Mayor Baker said Thursday, a little less than two months after taking office in November. “He finally catches the car and then goes, ‘What now?’”
Mayor Baker, a musician who plays in the area frequently, admits it’s “fun,” but different.
A former assistant utility director for the town of Hillsborough, Mayor Baker sought public office for the first time in a town that had seen its share of rancor over the past two years, mostly over the town commission’s decision to switch from a town administrator to a town manager without a referendum. Residents petitioned for a referendum in 2018, but the town board rejected it and instead held the referendum in 2019.
During the campaign, Mr. Evans opposed the switch to a manager. The mayor-to-be came out in favor of the manager system, and town voters elected him while overwhelmingly rejecting the referendum that would have switched back to the administrator system.
The dog caught the car, but in the process, he learned something he’d already suspected – he liked and respected his opponent.
Now, only a few weeks into his mayoral duties, Mayor Baker is more sure.
“Things look a lot different when you’re sitting up here” in the mayor’s chair than they did in the audience at meetings, he said.
All the commissioners elected in November – incumbent Don Miller and newcomers Jim Nailitz and Jeff Waters – supported the manager system, as do holdovers Steve Martin and Mike King.
Mayor Baker hopes to bring a sense of calm to the town.
“Hopefully we’ll be the most boring town you cover (for the News-Times),” he said Thursday. “I’d like us to avoid drama, just do the business for the people. I’d like all our meetings to be civil.”
He mentioned he has always liked Emerald Isle’s motto: “Nice matters.” He hasn’t come up with one for Cape Carteret but wants to, and he mentioned a word he thinks is crucial for government: “Listen.”
He believes if town officials listen to people and make it clear they genuinely care, they’ll avoid drama, even if people don’t agree with all final decisions. He also said he understands if people are upset and voice it during meetings.
He added that listening also means avoiding hasty, rash decisions.
“I want us to think about things,” he said.
Decisions based on emotions are often the ones that are problematic, Mayor Baker said.
The mayor knows he still has a lot to learn. He’ll rely on the old hands on the board and on the staff, such as Town Manager Zach Steffey and the department heads, to help him with the learning curve, but he brings some experience.
In Hillsborough, he created multiple departmental budgets, oversaw major projects and worked with other departments and contractors.
He noted the town board in Cape Carteret includes at least two others who are intimately familiar with budgets: Mr. Waters, who was police chief in Emerald Isle, and Mr. Miller, who was police chief in Cape Carteret.
The new mayor wants to look for innovative ways to get things done and cited the decision by the new board, seated in November, to back away from the previous board’s decision to purchase a $100,000-plus backhoe for the public works department.
“Maybe we could work out an arrangement with a local business to rent that equipment when we need it for a day or two instead of buying it,” he said.
The goal, Mayor Baker said, is to make sure the town provides good services and department employees have the tools they need to work effectively and safely, all without burdening taxpayers unduly.
“I’m retired on a fixed income, except for what I get from playing (music),” he noted, and said he understands the desire to keep property taxes as low as possible.
The mayor said he knows Cape Carteret is in a tough situation, with little room for growth in the tax base since there’s little vacant land, especially parcels suitable for commercial development.
“We all have to look at what we do with that land,” he said. “We don’t want to just stack up a bunch of fast-food places. We need smart growth.”
He said he’s confident the other board members and staff share a similar mindset and will get things done efficiently.
He also realizes there are big challenges ahead, such as a state Department of Transportation study that calls for major changes that could wipe out many of the businesses at and near the intersection of Highway 24 and Highway 58.
It will be crucial, Mayor Baker said, for the town to continue to make sure NCDOT officials understand the town’s concerns and fears.
He also said he believes town residents, as evidenced by the election results, are ready for a change in atmosphere in town hall and during board meetings.
“It’s time,” he said, “to move on.”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.