There was so much love, civility and respect in the second-floor meeting room of the Old Guilford County Court House on Monday morning, Dec. 3, that it was hard to believe it was a meeting of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting room was packed at 10 a.m. as the commissioners held a largely ceremonial meeting to say goodbye to six departing commissioners and to swear in four new ones.
The outcome of the only real business at the meeting – choosing a new chairman and vice chairman – was a surprise to no one: The new nine-member Board of Commissioners with a Republican majority voted unanimously to make Commissioner Linda Shaw chairman and Commissioner Bill Bencini the vice chairman.
Shaw will be the first new chairman the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has had in four years and the first Republican chairman in 15 years. At the meeting, former Chairman Skip Alston stepped down from the District 8 commissioners seat he has held for two decades.
The board has a Republican majority for only the third time in the last 20 years. The departing commissioners were Republican Mike Winstead and Democrat Alston, who decided not to run again this year; Democrats Kirk Perkins and Paul Gibson, who ran but lost; and Republican Billy Yow and Democrat John Parks, who were knocked off the board due to last year's redistricting of the county by the Republican-led state legislature, which reshaped the Guilford County board and reduced it from 11 members to nine.
The newly elected commissioners are Democrat Ray Trapp and Republicans Alan Branson, Hank Henning and Jeff Phillips.
Once the new Board of Commissioners was in place after a brief recess, the new Republican-dominated board voted for the Republican Shaw as chairman and Bencini, also a Republican, as vice chairman.
"I'm very honored and very flattered," Shaw said.
Shaw said she was looking forward to leading the board, and she said she was proud of her 51 years working for the Republican Party. She also offered gratitude for the support of her late husband, Bob Shaw, a former state senator and Guilford County commissioner who died in April of this year.
"He is in my heart and my spirit," Shaw said.
Shaw said she was determined for the board to work together to keep taxes down and to help create new jobs in Guilford County. She also said the new board would strive to have "more citizen involvement."
"This is your county and we're your commissioners," Shaw told the audience in the packed meeting room and those watching on television.
The incoming commissioners also had a few words of their own. Trapp said it had been a "whirlwind" last few days for him with the death of his father three days earlier.
Branson and Henning both choked up a little when they were making their opening remarks, and Phillips was clearly nervous his first time at the dais.
Phillips has spent most of the last year campaigning in District 5 – creating and distributing mailers and signs promoting his run – but, when Phillips was making his remarks, he said was proud to be representing District 6. He continued speaking for a moment before being corrected by several in the audience.
The new board made up of four new commissioners and five continuing commissioners will hold their first regular meeting on Thursday, Dec. 13.
The meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half with all the goodbyes and greetings, was followed by a reception in the foyer complete with quiche and cakes. However, before the new commissioners took their seats, the outgoing commissioners had a few words to share.
Yow was the first departing commissioner to offer his goodbyes. He began by thanking some of the county staff.
"We have an extraordinary staff in Guilford County – for the most part," Yow said.
He also said he would be in "a state of peace" knowing that Republicans would be in control of the board.
Yow offered some advice for the incoming commissioners: "Don't forget where you're coming from – you're nothing special."
Yow said he wasn't sad about leaving; in fact, he said, he was "delighted" – because a fresh group of commissioners coming in would mean new ideas.
After Yow spoke, Winstead said he wanted to thank the voters who had elected him to that job.
"God bless everybody," Winstead said after his brief goodbye speech.
Parks said he was proud of what he had been a part of as a commissioner. He said that, in the years he had served as a commissioner, the board had helped increase public safety, provided support for important services and expanded county facilities, with renovations to the courthouse in Greensboro and the construction of a new jail.
"We have a great county," Parks said. "I have enjoyed serving on the board. I wish the new board well."
Perkins highly complimented county staff – everyone from the county's health inspectors to the staff that works with the board on a daily basis.
He said it's been an unusual time for him since the election.
"I've been a lame duck for a month or so. It feels more like a dead duck," Perkins said.
Like other departing commissioners, Perkins had some advice for the incoming ones. He said it was easy to watch the meetings from a distance and make judgments about what should and should not be done, however, he said, it was only after one became a commissioner that one got a full understanding of all the complex considerations that went into making a decision.
Perkins also had kind words for his fellow commissioners.
"We're really kind of a family," he said. "At the end of the day, it's not about the commissioners – it's about the citizens."
Gibson spoke next. He said he had enjoyed his time as a commissioner. Gibson served on the board for the past eight years as well as for four years in the mid '80s.
He said he especially wanted to thank his wife, Jane, and the Clerk to the Board Effie Varitimidis and Deputy Clerk Crystal Mauer. He said Varitimidis and Mauer were very knowledgeable and were respected across the state.
"I wish all the new board members the best," Gibson added.
After the others had spoken, Alston said his last words as a county commissioner. Like several other commissioners, he thanked the clerk and the deputy clerk. Alston said they had helped him write his speeches and they had also always let him know before a meeting if that meeting would be long or short.
Alston also thanked Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox who has been under a lot of fire for over two years due to a multitude of highly questionable moves. Fox signed a secret real estate deal that could have cost the county millions, allowed Wachovia to raise the interest rate bid on a loan to the county after the deadline for submitting bids had passed, attempted to create a high-paying county job for a former commissioner she was good friends with, and did many other things that defy explanation.
"I really believe she's done an excellent job," Alston said of Fox.
Alston also said the Board of Commissioners was there to serve the citizens.
There were also many kind words from the commissioners who will remain on the board and serve with the four new commissioners. The five who will continue on the board are Shaw, Bencini, Carolyn Coleman, Bruce Davis and Kay Cashion.
At the Dec. 3 meeting, Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, who ran unopposed this year after serving for the last eight years in that office, reaffirmed his oath to the county along with 21 members of his staff.
At the end of the emotional Dec. 3 meeting, District 62 state Rep. John Blust said The Rhinoceros Times clearly had not been doing a good job reporting on the county commissioners because the paper had failed to capture all the love that the commissioners felt for one another.
The Rhinoceros Times regrets the error, but in the paper's defense, the love Blust was referring to has only been around for about a week and is expected to dissipate shortly after Christmas if not before.