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Peel leaving EC a much better place to live

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Joe Peel didn’t serve as long as Jerome Flora or John Bell, two of Elizabeth City’s longest-serving mayors, but his six-year tenure as the city’s top elected leader is sure to rank among the most impactful ever.

Peel, who steps down Monday night, is often referred to as a visionary. It was Peel, after all, who created and led “Vision 2020,” likely Elizabeth City’s largest and most comprehensive strategic planning effort ever. Vision 2020 looked at all aspects of life in Elizabeth City — everything from the downtown and the waterfront to education — and resulted in a lot of ideas for making our city a better place to live.

But Peel’s six years as mayor involved more than just planning and goal-setting. A lot also got done.

During the three terms he was at City Hall, the city’s infrastructure improved tremendously, as long delayed road and water-sewer projects were no longer put off but instead pursued and completed. Not only was the Elizabeth Street project finished during Peel’s tenure, the Road Street resurfacing project — long delayed because of cost — was as well.

The city’s downtown, while still containing too many empty buildings, has fewer of them today than it did thanks to initiatives like the Downtown Improvement Grant Program that started during Peel’s tenure. The program encourages investment by providing city grants to downtown businesses that undertake renovation projects.

Elizabeth City has also added another shopping center — Tanglewood Pavilions off Halstead Boulevard Extended — thanks to another business incentive program that began during Peel’s tenure. The Business Incentive Grant program refunds property taxes to businesses like Tanglewood’s developer that make significant investment in Elizabeth City and create a specified number of jobs.

Life has also improved for ratepayers of Elizabeth City’s electric utility during Peel’s tenure. Two years ago, thanks to an agreement by the city’s wholesale electric supplier and Duke Progress Energy, the city was finally able to shed its debt in costly power plants — debt that had saddled city ratepayers with high electricity bills for nearly four decades. Some 315 electric customers, 91 percent of whom are low income, also saw their annual electric bills decrease by roughly $306 through participation in the city’s weatherization program, an initiative Peel has championed since becoming mayor. 

During Peel’s tenure the city has moved police and fire officials into a new Public Safety Building, added several beautiful waterfront parks — Coast Guard Park and Veterans Park — and improved relationships with key community partners like the U.S. Coast Guard and Elizabeth City State University.

Most significantly, Elizabeth City’s reputation as a place where people want to live and where businesses want to relocate has changed in the past six years. The city’s government is no longer seen as inept or unproductive, mired in private agendas, as some have claimed in the past.

Did Peel accomplish all of this alone? No, of course not. Helping him make Elizabeth City a better place to live over the past six years have been a majority of city councilors also interested in making their home a better place, and the city’s highly competent staff led by one of the most competent city managers around, Rich Olson.

But while he got a lot of help, Peel had the critical job of providing the leadership that kept everyone else focused on what was important. It’s a job he’s done remarkably well. We say remarkably because getting Elizabeth City government to move in one direction — and stay in one direction — has proved unachievable for many of Peel’s immediate predecessors.

Did everything go smoothly or always work out the way Peel wanted? Of course not. Despite the aforementioned competence of city staff, its reputation took a huge hit earlier this year when city officials, including Peel and members of City Council, allowed problems with Elizabeth City’s utility billing system to get out of control. Although the problems have since been fixed, the meltdown showed what can happen when big transitions aren’t planned carefully enough and management isn’t as diligent in its oversight as it should be.

Also the friction, division and rivalries that have been staples of City Council interaction for decades didn’t magically go away when Peel took the oath of office in 2011. In some ways the friction in fact worsened because of Peel’s involvement outside city government helping start a public charter school. The school remains a point of controversy for some members of City Council who believe it hurts traditional public schools by siphoning off both students and funds. Even as late as several weeks ago, Councilman Johnnie Walton, who ran against Peel and lost in 2013, questioned the school’s application for a permit over a minor technicality that part of the application hadn’t been typed. Walton’s skepticism was a naked attack on Peel.

Peel of course didn’t improve his relationship with Walton or two other councilors — Darius Horton or Michael Brooks — by openly backing their challengers in the 2015 city election. Peel’s opposition didn’t end up hurting them; all three councilors won re-election. Peel said in an interview last week that he doesn’t regret the decision to oppose the councilors’ re-election because he believes none of them were acting in the best interests of the city.

It has been those interests that Peel has protected, advocated for and always strived to put first over the past six years. In those efforts, we believe he was overwhelmingly successful. Elizabeth City is a much better place today than it was when Peel arrived at City Hall in 2011. He should be proud of what he’s accomplished and we all should be proud for him.

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