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Peel gavels productive, lively mayoral post

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Mayor Joseph W. Peel poses for a portrait in Council Chambers at City Hall in Elizabeth City, Wednesday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, December 10, 2017

For six years, Mayor Joe Peel has pursued a vision of a better Elizabeth City.

Tomorrow, he turns that work over to someone else.

Peel's third term as mayor ends Monday, which is when the city will swear in Mayor-elect Bettie Parker and the city's eight city councilors. Elizabeth City's only three-term mayor in the last 20 years, Peel's mayoralty has seen progress and growth for Elizabeth City. It's also seen some controversy, as he's clashed with some city councilors and shared in responsibility for the city's troubles with utility billing that ran from late 2016 through this summer.

Peel reflected on his time as mayor in an interview last week.

Peel decided to run for mayor in 2011 after heading the Triangle Research Academy in Raleigh, and before then as superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. He explained he was concerned about crime, bad relationships between city officials, and a lack of progress on multiple issues.

Among those issues were high utility costs, which proved to be a key campaign issue between Peel and his opponent, incumbent Mayor Roger McLean. Though McLean focused on reducing electric rates, Peel called instead for reducing consumption and making homes more energy efficient. Elizabeth City's electric rates were high because of long-term debt beyond the city's control, he said. The city's electric rates finally went down in 2015 after Duke Energy Progress essentially paid off most of the debt in exchange for Elizabeth City and other municipalities' shares of power plants they co-owned with Duke Energy.

Peel described himself last week as someone committed to organizing people for strategic planning. He showcased that tendency early in his mayoralty, convening an energy efficiency commission and, on their recommendations, persuading the council to double the city's funding for weatherization to $200,000 a year. The city now spends $360,000 a year on weatherization, and Peel credits the program with slashing utility bills for hundreds of homes.

Peel then sought strategic planning on a larger scale, as he recruited hundreds of people for his “Vision 2020” community initiative. Peel today considers that one of his greatest successes as mayor.

“I say that because it set the agenda for the next five years,” Peel said, adding many of its recommendations are reflected in city council's official goals.

Peel has also strongly advocated for investments to support business growth, including major property tax rebates necessary for the Tanglewood Pavilions shopping complex and grants for numerous downtown businesses. He's also represented Elizabeth City's interests in Raleigh and Washington, D.C., including opposing a closure study of Elizabeth City State University and advocating for support of the U.S. Coast Guard and its base in Elizabeth City.

One of Peel's other major accomplishments remains controversial to some. After Vision 2020, he said he's most proud of founding the Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies, a science and technology-oriented charter school that opened in 2015. The successful school is outgrowing its space at Elizabeth City State University and searching for a permanent home, with current discussions focused on Southgate Mall.

“That's not something I did as the mayor, but that's something that would not have happened had I not been the mayor,” Peel said.

He explained that, in learning about the city's challenges in economic development, he heard over and over that the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools was an issue.

“Out of Vision 2020, that group identified K-12 education as the number one issue facing community growth and economic growth in this community,” Peel said.

He said he engaged ECPPS Board of Education members about that, but was dismayed at their response.

“One if not more school board members said, ‘you know, we don't have anything to do with economic development,'” Peel said. “That was extremely alarming to me.”

Peel said Northeast Academy has been a “tremendous catalyst” for change in schools across the region, helping spur development of science, technology, engineering and math courses and early colleges. Peel also said ECPPS, which has changed leadership since he first engaged district officials about economic development, is working to improve.

Northeast Academy has faced strong criticism from some educators and community members who decry it as taking away both students and funding from traditional public schools. Some of those critics have also claimed that the school is not accessible to minority students, that Peel abused his position as mayor to advance the school, or that Peel has wrongly profited from the academy. Academy officials and Peel have often stated he receives no compensation for chairing the school’s board of directors.

Controversy over the academy even led City Council to hire an outside investigator in 2014. The Pasquotank County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People alleged Peel wrongly directly city employees to help Pasquotank County submit a grant application to help pay the school's start-up costs.

Peel and City Manager Rich Olson maintained that Olson — not Peel — directed the staff who provided minimal, routine assistance to help the county seek the grant for the school.

Councilors Michael Brooks and Darius Horton pushed for the investigation, which proceeded after Peel and Olson said they welcomed it. Neither man was found to have committed wrongdoing, and to be investigated over the matter was a “joke,” Peel said Wednesday.

Councilor Johnnie Walton, who returned to City Council in 2015 after unsuccessfully challenging Peel for mayor in 2013, has continued to oppose the charter school for taking students and money away from ECPPS. Walton suggested during a campaign forum in 2015 that Peel was profiting from the charter school, which Peel labeled a lie.

Peel said he'll continue strongly supporting the academy, defending it as necessary to prepare students for good, well-paying careers.

“Of all the criticism that this school has received, you never hear anyone talk about children,” Peel said.

Peel has also had difficult relationships with some city councilors — and at least one setback — during his time as mayor.

Before his 2015 re-election campaign, Peel had sparred often with Walton, Brooks and Horton, including over the charter school, weatherization and, in Brooks and Horton's case, an attempt to fire Olson as manager. In kicking off his campaign, Peel commented the city had five “strong” councilors, and openly supported candidates running against the three councilors. That led Walton and Horton to campaign with Peel's opponent, Sam Davis III.

Though Peel won re-election, Walton, Horton and Brooks were re-elected as well.

Peel conceded that supporting the trio’s opponents “probably made frosty relations frostier, but I still would have done it, because at that time I didn't feel like what they were doing was in the best interest of the city.”

Peel's last big disagreement with the three councilors was in the handling of the city's utility billing problems over the last 12 months. The city tried to convert to a new utility billing software, but stubborn technical glitches led to bills going out months behind schedule, creating a financial headache for customers.

Walton, Brooks and Horton blamed Olson for the problems and again called for his firing. Peel and other councilors, however, defended Olson, saying he was the best person to fix the billing problems.

Though utility bills are now back on track, Peel acknowledged the city got “burnt” on the utility conversion. Despite that problem, Peel said he hopes the next council will still pursue another conversion.

“The reality is the utility billing system we're using is outdated and it has to be replaced,” Peel said.

The council needs to press forward with the conversion, he said, to deliver better service to customers and to allow the city to implement a “smart grid” system that's remained in limbo. City officials tout that project, saying it will allow remote, real-time meter reading, replace load management switches, and allow both customers and the city to better control usage and save money.

Asked if he has any parting advice to the next mayor and City Council, Peel urged them to keep growing the economy and improving the quality of life in Elizabeth City — and to realize the two are tightly linked. Schools, parks and community activities all influence whether people and businesses come to the city, he noted.

As for what he'll do after stepping down as mayor, Peel said he's looking forward to more free time, though he'll remain involved in the Northeast Academy and plans to continue some work with N.C. State University.

“Just enjoy life, finish projects around the house, play with my trains, ride my bicycle, enjoy retirement a little bit,” Peel said.

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