Education and workforce readiness took up much of the discussion at a New Hanover County commissioners candidate forum Wednesday morning, a day before early voting opens in the primaries.
The event, organized by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, was the first of two sessions to get the county commissioners candidates in front of business community members.
Wednesday’s event included seven of the 15 candidates. The rest of the hopefuls vying for three open spots on the board of commissioners are slated to speak at another Coffee with the Candidates event Feb. 19.
With an early primary – North Carolina previously moved up its date from May to be more of a factor in the presidential primaries – there's not that long of a window for voters to learn about the candidates after they filed in December.
The chamber organized the forums around the county commissioners race because of the large number of people running in it, chamber president and CEO Natalie English said.
Wednesday’s event drew about 100 and took place at Cape Fear Country Club.
“We need to ensure that our students, that they stay in school, but also we give them the foundations so that they can be successful in life,” Joe Irrera, a retired Marine colonel, said in response to an education question from moderator and former Wilmington mayor Spence Broadhurst.
“It all ties back to economic prosperity. If you’re doing well, you can go ahead and fund all these initiatives,” added Irrera, one of nine Republicans on the GOP ballot in the race.
The Democratic ballot includes six commissioner candidates.
Voters on March 3 – or as early as Thursday when one-stop early voting starts – will be able to pick up to three in the race, with the top vote-getters advancing to the general election.
Jonathan Barfield Jr., a Democrat who has served on the board since 2008, is the only incumbent whose name will be on the primary ballots in the race. Commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White, both Republicans, decided not to run for re-election.
In terms of economic development, Barfield pointed to incentives that county commissioners have approved during his time on the board for growing companies such as CastleBranch and Live Oak Bank.
Though Barfield is the lone incumbent, several others also have logged time in local government.
Don Betz, a Democrat who served as Wilmington’s mayor from 1987 to 1997, recalled going on business outreach trips through the chamber including an international one with several small business owners and former state Sen. Terry Sanford.
“We brought business to this area. When we get that Garner Report updated from 2014, maybe we can actually execute the recommendations,” he said referring to the economic development analysis the county commissioned.
Wilmington Planning Commission member and former chair Deb Hays said the region needs to be focused with its economic efforts, bringing together area chambers, economic development players and others.
“I think we need a collaborative effort, a unified marketing approach that we can take out and sell to the rest of the nation and the rest of the world,” said Hays, who is on the Republican ballot.
On education, Hays also said teacher pay was an important issue for retention and that the school system needs to improve graduation rates.
Several candidates mentioned student safety as a main priority, though none specifically referenced the recent arrest of Roland-Grise Middle School band teacher Peter Frank on felony sex crimes, including multiple counts of indecent liberties with a student by a teacher.
Frank is the third employee of the school system charged with sex crimes against students in the past two years. On Friday, New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley resigned.
Bill Rivenbark, a school board member and a county commissioner candidate, said during the forum that the nationwide search has started to find a new superintendent.
Rivenbark, who is in the Republican primary, said he was running for a seat on the county commissioners board to be a part of future planning.
“I think the county is doing pretty well right now; I’d just like to be a part of it going forward,” he said.
Democrat Travis Robinson is running for office for the first time. The retired sheriff’s lieutenant spent 32 years in law enforcement.
He said bringing back trade jobs was important, adding that developing partnerships with the private sector to help train students was one way to address that.
Republican Frank Christopher Meares, an elected New Hanover Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor, said his campaign focuses on improving overall infrastructure in the county to reduce taxpayer burden.
“Our county has everything we need,” he said. “We just need to improve on what we have.”
One issue the candidates weren’t asked about and didn’t bring up on their own was the future of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, which is slated to consider proposals from outside health systems for partnerships or purchase of the county-owned facility or to recommend changes to the existing structure if NHRMC remains an independent entity.
While some candidates already have campaigned on the issue, it’s largely expected that it will be the current board that votes on any deal if one is negotiated.
English said the process to discuss the hospital’s future is already underway and that Wednesday’s questions were meant to look at other long-term issues.
“It’s not the only issue. It’s been talked about every two to three weeks,” she said referring to the Partnership Advisory Group. “We needed to ask other questions too.”
ON THE BALLOTS
Here is who is running in the Democratic and Republican primaries for New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.
One-stop voting is Feb. 7-29.
Election Day is March 3.
Frank Christopher Meares
Jonathan Barfield Jr.