CAPE CARTERET — One reelected incumbent commissioner, two new ones and a new mayor took the oath of office Monday night as three other elected officials and one longtime staff member stepped down.
The changing-of-the-guard took place in town hall off Dolphin Street almost two weeks after a hotly contested Nov. 5 municipal election.
New 56-year-old Mayor Will Baker, a retired assistant utility director with Hillsborough who now makes his living as a musician, defeated Commissioner Charlie Evans 266 to 265 for the mayor’s post after eight-year incumbent Dave Fowler, 70, chose not to seek reelection.
In brief comments after taking the oath, Mayor Baker said his wife probably “questioned my sanity” when he told her he was going to run for the office.
“I want to thank this (past) board for its service,” he said, noting all politicians “open yourselves to so much scrutiny.”
He said he couldn’t say enough positive things about Mr. Evans, whom he got to know during the race and called a man of “great character.”
He also noted the razor-thin margin in the mayoral election, calling it a reminder of the importance of voting.
“Just a few hundred people decided what you are seeing here tonight,” Mr. Baker said. “I am humbled.”
The average town resident, Mr. Baker added, doesn’t understand “the amount of time you (exiting board members) have given to this town.”
Incumbent Commissioner Don Miller held onto his seat in the election, polling 374 votes, and newcomers Jim Nalitz and Jeff Waters, a former Emerald Isle police chief, took the other two commission seats with 342 and 409 votes, respectively.
The latter two replaced Mr. Evans and Minnie Truax, who declined to run for reelection after six years on the board.
Mr. Waters, the only town native in the race, led the ticket in his first try for elected office and took the oath with his father, Ronald Waters, a former town commissioner, by his side, administering.
The final candidate, Patricia Ruddiman, got 228 votes Nov. 5 and wasn’t elected.
Those sworn in Monday took their seats after the ceremony and joined holdovers Steve Martin and Mike King.
The other departure was Ashleigh Huffman Sewell, who served as town clerk for the past four years. Just before the election, she accepted a job in the private sector and submitted her resignation, but didn’t publicly announce her departure until last week after the results were in. Monday night was her last on the job. She called her departure bittersweet but the right move for her family.
Mr. Baker, a first-time office seeker, led the mayoral balloting 265 to 264 over Mr. Evans at the end of polling Nov. 5.
The Carteret County Board of Elections performed a discretionary recount last Thursday, which yielded the final margin, still only one vote.
Mr. Evans could have called for a recount after the votes were canvassed Friday, but chose not to do so and called Mr. Baker to congratulate him Thursday after the recount.
Monday night, before stepping down, he said it had been a “distinct pleasure” to serve the town.
“You’re in good hands,” he said to the audience that packed the town hall meeting room. “We fought the good fight for mayor. I encourage you all to fall in line and support” the new mayor and board.
“I’m very proud of the work we did. It was not always a smooth road,” he added, but the town is in good shape.
A fiscal conservative, he urged the new board to watch the budget and spend only for what’s needed, not what “you want or what would be nice to have.”
Mr. Waters said he was proud to follow in his father’s footsteps and serve as a commissioner in a town they both love.
“Cape Carteret is a great place to live, work and do business,” he said. “I will do my best to help keep it that way. I will work with all of you.”
He also noted the presence at the ceremony of Emerald Isle Police Chief Tony Reese, who had been his assistant chief in Emerald Isle.
Mr. Nalitz, who ran for mayor four years ago but lost to Mr. Fowler told the voters he was pleased to be elected and wants to “help the town in any way I can, and not make you sorry you did this.”
The municipal election was driven in large part by a controversy that began in early 2018, when the board of commissioners in separate 3-2 votes dismissed Tony Rivera as police chief and changed the town from a town administrator form of government to a town manager. A separate 4-1 vote at the time elevated then-Administrator Zach Steffey to manager, a position he still holds.
A resident-driven petition eventually led to a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot on the question of switching to an administrator.
The referendum failed by a vote of 155 to 365, retaining the manager system.
Mr. Nalitz, Mr. Waters, Mr. Baker and Mr. Miller said in a candidates’ forum in late October they supported the manager form of government, while Mr. Evans and Ms. Ruddiman supported the administrator system, in which the commissioners oversee departments.
Both have said they were glad residents had their say.
Mr. Baker alluded to the issue Monday night, noting the overwhelming support of the public for the manager system and Mr. Steffey. He urged the new board to let Mr. Steffey do his job.
“I’ve seen nothing but good things from Zach,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with him and this board.”
Outgoing Mayor Fowler also mentioned the long-simmering controversy in his exit comments Monday.
He called the petitioners “a small group” that beat the drum loudly for a return to the administrator system. But, he added, 70% of those who voted made their preference known in the referendum, and reiterated it “by who they supported.”
He also said eight years ago, when he ran for mayor, he’d sat on the beach and wrote out his thoughts about the town’s future and his role in in it.
Essentially, he said, those thoughts – penned for the newspaper’s candidate profile – were that the town’s elected officials should focus on improving the quality of life for residents and visitors and improve the climate for businesses.
“Eight years later, I leave very satisfied that we have lived by that,” the outgoing mayor said. The staff, he added, has worked hard to improve efficiency and services and come up with new recreational opportunities and events.
“Things are going well,” he said, commending the staff, including Ms. Huffman, Mr. Steffey, Public Works Director Danny Taylor, administrative assistant Heather Leffingwell, Police Chief Bill McKinney and Finance Director Sandy Favreau.
“I think we have a good board in place,” he said.
Ms. Truax said she is proud of her service and thanked the voters for supporting the town and the manager form of government.
“I feel like I’ve stood up to my oath (of office) and done my best for the town,” she said.
Ms. Truax also got a spirited exit speech from her husband, Wayne. Speaking during public comment before the new board members took their oaths of office, he cited her efforts to upgrade equipment in the public works department, her work on and support for recreation and special events and her support for street and police department improvements.
Ms. Huffman, as one her last duties, presented Mayor Fowler a plaque honoring him for his service. She also gave plaques to Ms. Truax and Mr. Evans.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.