November 15, 2012
When Bob Dylan wrote, "The times they are a changin'," he was talking about a political shift to the left. However, those same lyrics could be used to describe Guilford County
government, with the caveat that, this time around, the things that are a changing are taking a decided political shift to the right.
These days, people are fond of saying that elections have consequences, and one only has to talk to the three new Republicans coming onto the Board of Commissioners to realize that – with a Republican majority running the show for the first time in 14 years – a lot of changes in Guilford County
government can be expected.
Since before the turn of the century, the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners has been led by a Democratic majority that raised taxes with abandon, handed out taxpayer money to wealthy companies without giving it a second thought, let the county manager and department heads run free – no matter how crazy their actions were – and never took a close look into how the school system spends the money the county gives it.
Also, for the past decade, the Democratic majority on the board has taken most of its cues from the highly liberal Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston – even during the five of the last 10 years when Alston wasn't chairman.
But all that's about to change.
Well, probably not all of it – however, if the new commissioners govern anything like they talk, there's going to be an entirely new way of doing business in Guilford County
Even the lone new Democrat District 8 Commissioner-elect Raymond Trapp, often sounds like a conservative when he talks about "trimming the fat" in county government.
One wide-ranging change all the new commissioners say they want is for more thought, deliberation and transparency in board decisions.
New Republican District 6 Commissioner-elect Hank Henning said he's been paying close attention to the current Board of Commissioners, and he's been alarmed at recent instances when the board either passed, or attempted to pass, major motions as a rush job.
The reason that's happened systematically for years is that Alston and Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox have been largely running county government on their own. However, Alston is departing the board on Monday, Dec. 3, when the new board is sworn in, and Fox is retiring on Feb. 1 – setting the stage for a brand new government in Guilford County
, led by Republicans, and by a county manager of their choice.
The new Republican commissioners also say they want to explore undoing some of the things the current board has done. Henning said he wants the Republican-led board to take a closer look at some recent moves by the current board – ones made with little discussion and even less thought.
For instance, Henning said, he wants to revisit the county's plan to form a Guilford County
parks and recreation department that will begin managing and operating the county's parks. Guilford County
has never run its parks; the county has always outsourced those duties to towns, cities and counties that have the staff and experience to do it. However, in June, the board voted to take over the county's parks on Jan. 1.
"I want to revisit the parks department – that's one area I want to take another look at," Henning said.
He also said the current board didn't seem to really think through an attempted rezoning that would have rezoned 618 of the Prison Farm's 806 acres to make way for a corporate park.
"It does seem one area where they rushed through it," Henning said.
Henning also said the new county government has to be more open and accountable for its actions. The new Republican commissioners say the next county manager isn't going to have the free reign that Fox did.
"First I want to get the transparency part of it in place," Henning said.
Trapp said that, from him, voters can expect a reasoned, thoughtful approach to county actions. Trapp said that he also was surprised at the way the Prison Farm rezoning was handled by the current board, a process the new board could handle better, he said, going forward as the county decides how to use that land.
"I think it doesn't have to be rushed," Trapp said. "It needs to be a public process and we need to plan it out right."
District 5 Commissioner-elect Jeff Phillips said he's often been stunned with the way the Board of Commissioners has operated in the past. He said that right now could be a very pivotal point in Guilford County
history, a time when the board can change its opaque style of government, as well as its often unruly behavior.
"We have an opportunity before us to bring a level of professionalism and respect to the Board of Commissioners," Phillips said.
Phillips said those qualities haven't been completely lacking from the board, but he said everyone who's been watching Guilford County
government in recent years has seen what's transpired.
"The people say it's been dysfunctional in many respects," Phillips said. "I want it to be more functional, much more professional, much more transparent to the public, to the people they represent. I think that's been missing for some time."
He said a Republican majority on the board and a new county manager will bring an opportunity for real change.
"I think that's a powerful combination if we handle it right," Phillips said.
Phillips added, "I want to regain the respect of the people of the county, because it's their money, their tax dollars. We work for them."
When Alan Branson, the District 4 commissioner-elect talks about his hopes for the new board, he stresses attacking the budget using a new level of detail. Branson said he wants to look at every county department and find any wasteful spending. He added that there are things he's seen when it comes to the county's Department of Public Health and the Animal Control operations that lead him to believe county savings could be found there.
Branson added that taking a focused look at the spending of each county department doesn't necessarily mean cutting in all cases. He said he wants to make sure critical county services such as fire protection and emergency services are funded to the extent they need to be to keep the county safe.
During Branson's campaign against outgoing District 4 Commissioner Kirk Perkins, Branson was critical of what he said were Perkins' attempts to cut key emergency services.
Branson said he wants to make sure the county's fire departments are well funded.
"We need to look after our fire volunteers," he said.
He said savings can be found in less critical areas of government.
Branson said, "We just want to do more with less money."
One group that might not like the new highly hands-on attitude of the three new Republicans is the Guilford County
Board of Education. That board of elected officials enjoys doing its own thing and, if the school board had its way, the county commissioners would just hand over the money the school board asks for each year and save the advice....continued on page 2