4 decades of experience leaving council
By Jon Hawley
Saturday, December 9, 2017
Elizabeth City City Council will lose more than 40 years' worth of experience next week when four long-serving incumbents leave office.
The city will swear in Mayor-elect Bettie Parker and newly elected city councilors Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle, Gabriel Adkins and Kem Spence at a ceremony at Museum of the Albemarle, Monday at 7 p.m. Also being sworn in for new two-year terms are returning councilors Anita Hummer, Rickey King, Johnnie Walton and Darius Horton.
Saying goodbye to the council will be First Ward councilors Jean Baker and Ray Donnelly, neither of whom sought re-election; Second Ward Councilman Tony Stimatz who lost his bid for re-election to a seventh term; and Third Ward Councilor Michael Brooks, who didn’t formally seek re-election but instead ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate.
Baker, Stimatz and Brooks have each served more than 10 years on council, while Donnelly has served six. In interviews Thursday, the incumbents reflected on their public service, including their accomplishments and regrets, and the occasional controversies they faced.
Baker, a former cable company executive, recalled she first ran for city council in the late 1990s because she felt the council wasn't getting enough done and wasn't holding people accountable.
In 2002, the year after she won her first term, accountability took the form of council demanding the resignation of then-City Manager Steve Harrell. Baker said Harrell had failed to oversee a group charged with community revitalization efforts and to oversee redevelopment of low-income houses, including for an elderly woman named Beulah Respass.
Baker's criticism of other city officials soon led to blow-back, as she faced protests and accusations of targeting black officials, and even saw councilors at the time try to end a contract between the city and her then employer, Adelphia Cable. Baker says she stood by her decisions and continued to get re-elected, completing what will be nine terms in office.
In recent years, Baker said she's been pleased to vote for infrastructure projects and business grants that have helped improve the city and create jobs. She also said city officials are close to some major, positive announcements for the city.
In a turn-around from her initial criticism of city management, Baker said she now has great confidence in city staff. She's often defended City Manager Rich Olson — and opposed efforts to fire him — and said his new hires in public utilities, planning, finance and human resources are doing well so far.
Baker did acknowledge council and city staff were “taken by surprise” by the city's utility problems earlier this year. Council responded to citizens' outrage, she said, but she also believes the city should have gotten in front of the problems more.
Donnelly, a bed-and-breakfast operator, said Thursday that his six years on council went by quickly. He recalled his reasons for first running in 2011 were simple.
“A desire to serve, I guess,” he said, adding he wanted to improve the city and bring civility to council.
Donnelly noted that council accomplished some big infrastructure projects during his tenure, including building the second electrical delivery point — a costly project, but one necessary to serve electrical demand as the city grows. The redevelopment of Elizabeth Street, construction of the Tanglewood Pavilions shopping complex, the purchase and opening of the new Public Safety Administration Building and the installation of public bathrooms at Mariners’ Wharf Park downtown were also notable projects during Donnelly’s tenure.
Donnelly said he always felt a sense of accomplishment when responding to constituent requests, believing citizens generally appreciated his service. However, some were upset that he opposed firing Olson over the utility billing problems, he noted.
Asked if he had any regrets as he leaves council, Donnelly named two. First, he said he was disappointed councilors didn't formally oppose House Bill 2 last year. The controversial state law — since repealed — set off a national debate about whether public safety concerns justified barring transgender individuals from using the bathrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity. Donnelly believes the law was discriminatory, and feels councilors should be looking out for all city residents.
Donnelly also said he regretted that council never approved funding for a dog park. Councilors have cut funding for the project, estimated to cost $20,000, so often it's become something of a joke on council, he noted. Nonetheless, Donnelly said it's a worthwhile and inexpensive project. The city has many dog owners who want a place for their dogs to get fresh air and exercise, he says.
Donnelly said he hopes that private fundraising, and perhaps a donation of space from the city, will finally make the park a reality.
Stimatz, a retired Coast Guard captain, said he first ran for council in 2005 because he wanted to keep good leadership on council. He noted former Councilor Bill Lehmann, who then held a Second Ward seat, decided not to seek re-election but instead ran for mayor that year.
Stimatz said he's “really enjoyed serving the community” and has worked to understand the city's issues. He believes he’s held city staff accountable with detailed questions and recommendations.
Stimatz said he's proud of the direction the city is going in. He’s also proud of his involvement in the city’s infrastructure projects. He successfully pushed city staff and the N.C. Department of Transportation to address drainage when it repaired Elizabeth Street years ago, he said, and has further tackled stormwater issues through the city's Stormwater Advisory Board.
As for regrets, Stimatz said “clearly, no one wanted the utility fiasco to happen,” referring to this year's failed billing software conversion. He, too, believes the problems could have been avoided. Stimatz has also stands by city staff's pursuit of another software conversion, arguing it can be better managed and is needed to provide better customer service.
Stimatz said he urging the incoming council to “do its homework” so it can ask city staff the right questions and keep it focused on achieving the council's goals.
Brooks, a preacher and Army veteran, said his time on council was “interesting” to say the least, noting he was involved in controversies other councilors weren’t.
Brooks, who didn’t seek a sixth term, said he first ran because he wanted the city to close down an “open-air drug market” on Shepard Street. He ran to have a say in policy and policing, he noted.
Today, Brooks is pleased to say that crime has gone down greatly across Elizabeth City, and he believes the city is in a better overall position today. Population loss remains a concern though; Brooks has joined with other councilors in calling for the city to do more to entice young people to stay in the area.
Brooks also feels council relations have improved, though he said some personality conflicts are inevitable with any group of people.
Arguably the most controversial part of Brooks' tenure on council came when he was convicted of threatening a city worker, Joseph Bentley, in 2012. Bentley claimed Brooks threatened to harm him while he was working to restore power after Hurricane Irene. Brooks was sentenced to probation, community service and taking an anger management class.
Brooks has dismissed the case as a worker “lying on me” and maintains his innocence. He also faults the city for failing to properly investigate the incident, and alleges it was a “conspiracy” against him because of his work on council.
Brooks also noted he's had “sharp exchanges” over the years with Mayor Joe Peel, whom he's criticized for trying to control council meetings and action too much. Elizabeth City's mayor acts largely as a “figurehead,” he said.
Brooks said he doesn’t have any regrets from his service on council. He believes he’s worked to provide his constituents a voice and act based on their desires, not his own, he said.