Thursday, October 24, 2013 12:00 AM
Five vie for two town board seats
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
MIDDLESEX — A commissioner’s bid to unseat the mayor means at least one newcomer will join the town board next year.
Five candidates are vying for two open seats on the Middlesex Board of Commissioners in next month’s municipal election. Dale Bachmann is vacating his seat to challenge Mayor Luther "LuHarvey” Lewis. The other incumbent, Commissioner Harold Meacombs, is seeking re-election.
Brandie Holt and Robert Johnson, who are among the board’s most outspoken critics, hope to fill both open seats. They often attend town meetings in blue "Citizens for a Better Middlesex” T-shirts.
"I think Robert and I are very like-minded, and I feel two like-minded individuals would go further in accomplishing some common goals,” Holt said. "I really feel like two are better than one.”
Holt and Johnson say their requests for town records prompted commissioners to begin charging fees of up to $26 per hour when copies take more than a half-hour to compile. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office is investigating the fees to determine whether they violate the North Carolina Public Records Act.
Also seeking a seat on the town board are Ann Lewis, a retired manufacturing manager, and Stacey Meek, a working mother who moved her family to Middlesex for its small-town charms.
A native of Fisher, Ill., Meek said she migrated to the South for its warm climate. A small population and close proximity to Raleigh attracted her to Middlesex, but she isn’t content with the town as it is today.
"I moved my family here four years ago because I wanted my kids to grow up in a small town,” Meek said. "I quickly realized that Middlesex is a small town without the community feel. There’s not a whole lot for young families here, there’s not a lot for kids to do and there aren’t a lot of community events.”
Meek started attending commissioners’ meetings about six months ago and said she was "pretty amazed at what the board was able to get away with.”
If elected, Meek said she would work to attract more businesses to Middlesex, improve the town’s offerings for young families and perhaps offer free wireless Internet access downtown.
"If you’re going to bring industry in, you have to have amenities in town in order for people to want to live here,” she said.
Meek takes issue with Middlesex’s public record copying fees, which are intended to reimburse the town for the salary and benefits of the employee making the copies.
"I think it’s ridiculous to charge $26,” she said. "I think (Town Clerk) Jennifer (Lambert) is doing a great job up at the town building, but I already pay my taxes.”
Meek works as a sports massage therapist in Wendell and said Middlesex has potential to grow into a thriving exurb for the Raleigh metro area.
"I feel there are things that can be done to make it a progressive, attractive town to new people coming in,” she said. "I’ve always been kind of an ‘If I don’t do it, it won’t get done’ kind of person.”
A 50-year resident of Middlesex, Lewis said she’s always wanted to get involved in town government. Her career made difficult demands on her time, and after retiring as materials manager at Fawn Industries, Lewis thinks it’s time to jump in with both feet.
"I think the town has made progress in the last few years, and I would like to be a part of seeing it continue,” she said.
Lewis said the town board is moving in the right direction on economic development, park maintenance and water and sewer service and she’s been "very satisfied with everything” commissioners have done.
"My main objective would be just to get more people involved and interested in learning how the town operates, how it works and what it takes to run the town,” she said.
Lewis is not related to LuHarvey Lewis, the mayor and town administrator.
The commissioner candidate believes Middlesex is likely to reevaluate its service fees for copying town documents, but she said it’s doesn’t seem fair to overwhelm town employees with voluminous public records requests.
"Their time is already full,” Lewis said. "The people that come in to pay a water bill or do the normal routine at the office, if they have to wait because somebody’s doing something for public records, they’re going to get upset. It’s a two-sided coin to me. They have to have the time to get things done.”
Middlesex’s longest-serving town commissioner said he’s spent 16 years working to keep residents safe and offer more public services without raising taxes.
"In the 16 years I’ve been here, we’ve never had a tax increase,” Meacombs said. "The county’s gone up several times.”
Meacombs retired after 38 years as a telecommunications engineer for the N.C. Highway Patrol — "I was their technical geek, I guess you could say,” he explains — and takes a keen interest in the Middlesex Police Department.
"I’ve always been the police commissioner,” he said. "I feel like with my experience with the Highway Patrol, I know what their needs are. I feel like we’ve got a pretty good police department right now.”
Meacombs said he’d like to see Middlesex grow by adding more businesses and more homes. That growth would spread water and sewer costs across a larger customer base, he said, which could help prevent rate increases.
He also wants the town to seek state and federal grants to renovate and landscape Middlesex’s aging homes.
"There’s always a need to try to do more beautification,” he said. "There are some sections of town that are pretty rundown. Grants are a way you can get things done.”
Meacombs said he’s open to guidance from the attorney general’s office on public records fees and would vote to change the town policy if officials determine it conflicts with state law.
"Until some ruling is said about it, I doubt we’ll charge for anything we give them,” he said. "If it comes out that something’s wrong with it, I’ll be the first one to make a motion to stop it and take it off the books.”
It’s tough to follow the rules if you don’t know what they are, Holt says. She asked Middlesex commissioners in July 2012 to post the code of ordinances on the town website and said the mayor replied in a letter that it was too expensive to do so.
"That intrigued me because there’s always salary increases,” Holt said. "I don’t like to be told no when something is a reasonable request.”
A Nash County native who moved to Middlesex with her husband and children in 2007, Holt said the town government needs to be more forthcoming with information and more responsive to residents’ concerns.
"I think there needs to be a pressing change for public records, open government and a good working relationship with the citizens,” she said. "Those are my main reasons for running. I’m disgusted with the public records policy. There’s a closed session at every meeting, and it just seems like too many.”
Holt has criticized the mayor for trading sharp retorts with residents in heated exchanges during time reserved for public comment.
"I think once the relationship between the town board and the citizens is mended, people will be a lot happier,” she said.
Holt said she’d like to see Middlesex offer outdoor festivals and concerts to bring residents and newcomers downtown. She said town officials can make information more accessible to the public by posting the ordinances online and starting official Facebook and Twitter pages to interact with residents.
"I feel like people want change,” she said. "I just hope that their votes reflect that. Whether I win or lose, my goal is to get things done. Win or lose, it’s not going to stop me from speaking.”
Known for harping on the town’s controversial public records fees and decrying the state of Middlesex’s public parks, Johnson said he wants to improve his hometown rather than tear it down.
"You want positive attention, but sometimes to get the positive, you have to weed out the negative, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Johnson said. "Things are not right.”
Johnson thinks voting in two new commissioners — himself and Holt — would make the town board more responsive to residents’ wishes.
"The current commissioners are not really working for the citizens of Middlesex,” he said, "they’re working for the mayor. They would have the community’s support if they had open government, but it’s a core group of people and they want to keep it that way.”
Instead of trying to steer economic development from Town Hall, Johnson said Middlesex should start a chamber of commerce to advocate for local businesses.
"If we had a chamber of commerce, we could get citizens and businesses together to create something to make Middlesex grow,” Johnson said.
He and Holt have long called for new playground equipment and other improvements to Middlesex’s two parks. Johnson said most parks and recreation funding has been diverted to the Bailey-Middlesex Park, a joint project with Nash County and the town of Bailey.
"The town and the board committed $250,000 for a park that’s 5 miles outside town, but in the two parks here, we’ve got equipment that’s not safe for our children,” he said. "The equipment has been there since the ‘80s.”
Johnson said the mayor and commissioners are entrenched in their support of the town’s public records fees despite concerns raised by the state attorney general and local district attorney. Good leaders, he said, are willing to change their minds when they’re presented with evidence that contradicts their views.
"If you make a wrong decision, you can backtrack and change your decision,” Johnson said. "Basically, what they’re doing is discouraging people from ever getting into town business. It makes citizens and people in surrounding communities say, ‘What have you got to hide?’”
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