Southern Shores residents

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Originally published in Outer Banks Sentinel
Re-printed with permission.

MARK JURKOWITZ | SENTINEL STAFF

Eight candidates will compete for three council seats

In Southern Shores, five challengers, along with three incumbents, are seeking three seats on the five-member town council this fall. For some perspective, that equals the combined number of challengers who are running for local municipal office in Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Manteo and Nags Head.

That large roster of candidates in Southern Shores represents a dramatic shift in interest from recent elections. In 2011, for example, there were three candidates running for three seats on the council, and two years later just one candidate competed for one seat. This year’s big field may also reflect the polarized — some might even say paralyzed — state of politics in this scenic town of about 2,800. In fact, the bruising tone of public discourse in Southern Shores seems to be the one point everyone can agree on.

“I think what’s happened here is that people have shut down and are not listening to the other side,” said Lynda Burek, one of the challengers.

“It’s almost like the situation we’re in with Congress,” said David Sanders, who has served two non-consecutive terms on the council. “Everyone is adamant and emotional about how to do things…I would hate to see things get to a sort of deadlock.”

With the filing deadline having passed on July 17, the field is set. The three incumbents running for re-election are Sanders; Larry Lawhon, who has served on the council for four years; and Mayor Pro Tempore Jodi Hess, who has been on the council for a dozen years.

The challengers include Fred Newberry, who retired from the Senior Executive Service in the FBI and is making his first run for office. Another newcomer is Christopher Nason, an architect who considered running in the last election before demurring. Author, journalist and former practicing lawyer Ann Sjoerdsma is making her first bid for public office, as is Burek, the treasurer of the Southern Shores Civic Association. Gary McDonald, a former principal of the Kitty Hawk Elementary School, is the one challenger with experience as a candidate, having previously run for mayor.

The candidates embrace the idea of a crowded field, although their reasons may differ.

“It’s great that citizens are becoming more involved,” said Hess. “I’m very excited about it.” Lawhon, who has expressed frustration with some of the criticism aimed at the incumbents, agreed that the large field and passionate debate is a positive sign. “It’s healthy for any town to have an honest debate go on, and we look forward to it,” he said.

For his part, McDonald is rooting for a successful insurgency. Stating that the big issue is a lack of “openness” in town politics, he added that “it’s going to take more than me. It’s going to take a change in that board…to open it up.”

The large number of candidates “doesn’t surprise me because there are a lot of people who believe there needs to be a new focus and a new direction,” said Burek.

These days, much of the communication in town politics is of the negative variety. In recent battles over tree cutting, critics have dubbed the town council with the unflattering nickname “the chainsaw board” for what they see as an excessive taking of trees and an insensitivity to public concerns. There have also been calls for council members to resign.

In response, the council authorized the publication of a strongly worded letter back in February accusing some residents of using “emails and social media to personally attack and ridicule individual Town Council members, staff members and professional service providers.”

These sentiments are likely to play a role in the upcoming campaign. Sjoerdsma, a vocal critic of the current council, said there’s a “feeling that this current administration is not open to other people’s opinions. They’re closed minded and they’re arrogant.”

“The number one thing is transparency in Southern Shores government,” said Newberry. The council is “doing things and they don’t have open dialogue as much as they should.”

An opposing perspective is voiced by Lawhon, who said that “we as a town council have had a difficult time in the last several months in combating social media slant” that he says is rife with rumor and innuendo. “It seems to get people into a false frenzy.”

Sanders said he is aware of the “feeling that nobody is listening,” but asserted it is misguided.  “Well, everybody is listening,” he countered.

Hess, who cited safety and traffic concerns as the dominant issues in town, said of the criticism leveled at the council: “In any town, you’re going to find people…who don’t agree and I think that’s great.”

One example of the current level of distrust in town politics came in the wake of the town council’s recent appointment of a six-person selection committee that will then appoint a nine-member South and East Dogwood Trails Task Force to examine street and safety issues that will inevitably involve the sensitive issue of tree cutting.

While Mayor Tom Bennett lauded the effort as an attempt to “start over fresh” and generate “greater involvement from citizens,” the composition of the selection committee was questioned by several residents concerned that the mayor had picked like-minded members.

“Looking at it [the selection committee] on the surface, I’m a little skeptical,” said Newberry. “The people he selected appear to be people who favor [Bennett’s] projects. I think the group lacks diversity.”

That criticism prompted a response, posted on the Sentinel website, from Pat Wilson, the chairman of the selection committee, who declared that he was “profoundly appalled by the name calling and uncivilized ugliness that has been generated over ‘the Trees.’”

Striking a balance between development and the town’s natural beauty — as well as easing political tensions — emerged as a common theme among a number of the candidates.

Nason, who is running as a “fresh face,” said that “for me, it’s about charting a more moderate course…it’s a matter of common sense.” When it comes to development issues, he favors a “scalpel” rather than a “hatchet,” but said “at the same time, we’re not going back to a primordial forest in Southern Shores.”

“In the trees debate, it got really personal,” he continued. “Some people were going after board members ad hominem. That’s inappropriate.”

“We need to be discussing how Southern Shores is going to evolve,” said Sjoerdsma, citing such issues as traffic, infrastructure and the need to preserve the maritime forest. “It’s a sanctuary. It’s a bucolic area…It’s a precious resource and there are some problems that have arisen and they haven’t been addressed adequately.”

McDonald offered that, with proper management and the building of consensus, the town can resolve the trees-versus-development tension. “You can have good roads and you don’t have to take away the beauty,” he stated. “You work with the community and you maintain the support of the community.”

Sanders, who said that one traditional problem in Southern Shores has been “projects that were started and not completed,” also talked about finding that elusive balance in town policies and priorities. “How do we provide the atmosphere and infrastructure and not damage [either]?” he asked.

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