Our Opinion: Incumbents and challengers split on Wilson City Council's role

A Wilson Times Co. editorial
Posted 10/15/19

Should the Wilson City Council be a referee who polices the playing field for fairness, a head coach calling the plays for growth or a quarterback responsible for moving the ball forward?

If …

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Our Opinion: Incumbents and challengers split on Wilson City Council's role

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Should the Wilson City Council be a referee who polices the playing field for fairness, a head coach calling the plays for growth or a quarterback responsible for moving the ball forward?

If there’s one key difference between incumbents and challengers that emerged during Monday’s candidate forum, it’s vastly divergent views on local government’s role in shaping Wilson’s future.

Mayoral hopeful Carlton Stevens Jr. and District 4 candidate Davonta Ferguson appeared to favor expanding the council’s scope of responsibilities, while Mayor Bruce Rose and District 4 Councilman James Johnson believe Wilson leaders should enable progress without stage-managing private development or stepping on other elected officials’ toes.

The split was evident from the first audience question. Citing reports that B.O. Barnes and Margaret Hearne elementary schools received failing school performance grades for two of the last three years, a resident asked candidates what the council could do to shore up city schools.

Rose noted that the Wilson County Board of Education is responsible for setting school policy. Stevens, however, was eager to endorse city council involvement.

“There is no reason that we cannot find a way to formulate a method of increasing the pay for those city schoolteachers,” he said to applause from forum attendees.

The state of North Carolina pays teachers’ base salaries and school districts provide salary supplements. Most school districts are contiguous with county lines. While there are a few municipal school systems, and they pay supplements just like countywide districts do, we’re not aware of any cities without their own school system offering extra pay for educators within their corporate limits.

Should Wilson really hand out bonuses to employees it doesn’t supervise? That would create pay disparities that disadvantage schools in small towns like Lucama, Stantonsburg and Elm City along with those in unincorporated areas of Wilson County. It also may sow discord between the city council and school board.

Johnson made a convincing case for the council staying in its lane: “We can hold our school board accountable. Where we’re held accountable on electric rates, they can be held accountable for education.”

Indeed, school board members signed off on improvement plans for Barnes Elementary and Hearne Elementary on Oct. 7. The Wilson County Board of Education is doing its job and hasn’t sought the city council’s help.

Other intergovernmental partnerships may be welcome. Animal rescuer Max Fitz-Gerald has long pointed out that even though animal control is a county government function, most stray pets come from the city of Wilson. City leaders could chip in for a free or low-cost spay and neuter program to reduce pet overpopulation. How about it, candidates?

Divisions also emerged over Wilson’s offerings for young adults, the diversity of downtown businesses and commercial and residential development in east Wilson.

“We should be having more to do here for millennials,” Ferguson said. “If I’m elected, I’m going to bring it here.”

We agree that Wilson needs more businesses that cater to a younger crowd, but beyond routine recruitment efforts, we’re not sure what else the council can realistically do. Opening a video arcade staffed by city employees probably isn’t in the cards.

A man who relocated from Raleigh to Wilson complained that there’s nothing to do downtown. Challengers were sympathetic to that viewpoint while incumbents proudly listed new businesses and ongoing projects to revitalize our city’s historic core. This could boil down to a matter of perspective — we’ve come a long way and can celebrate that progress, but we still have a long way to go before downtown Wilson is as vibrant as, say, downtown New Bern.

East Wilson residents expressed frustration with a lack of retail and service businesses, mentioning a grocery store and a bank as top needs. While Rose and Johnson cited the U.S. 301 renovation project underway with the aid of federal and state grants as a driver of future development, Stevens and Ferguson appeared to agree the city isn’t doing enough.

Joining Rose, Stevens, Johnson and Feguson on the candidate forum stage was District 1 candidate Gillettia Morgan. She and Brenda Avery both filed to run for the seat former Councilman A.P. Coleman vacated, but Avery is not campaigning due to health concerns.

All five hopefuls in attendance offered insightful comments and made some salient points. We thank each candidate for participating in the forum and sharing their ideas.

Rose and Johnson seemed to endorse a view of limited government where the city council sets conditions favorable for growth and lets private industry do its part. Stevens and Ferguson seem to favor more central planning and direct intervention that would make the council responsible for a bigger slice of our civic life.

Which approach is best for Wilson? That’s up to you.