STATESVILLE – The clearly stated purpose for an early January one-day mini retreat was for Davidson’s elected officials and town staff members to get to know each other better. And with “no rules” stressed at the outset as the gathering’s only firm guideline, accompanied by steady encouragement from the event’s facilitator to speak freely and share opinions, participants had the opportunity to do just that by simply listening to each other..
Held Jan. 5 at the remote Starrette Farm in Statesville, the informal, six-hour retreat involved all of Davidson’s newly elected government officials along with the town’s administrative staff and department directors. The event was held three weeks after new Mayor Rusty Knox and four new town commissioners – Autumn Michael, Jane Campbell, Matthew Fort and David Sitton – joined returning Commissioner Jim Fuller in taking oaths of office. The basic goal was for commissioners and staff members to enhance professional and personal connections with each other as the first step toward setting expectations about working together.
The roughly outlined format, coordinated by Warren Miller from the Raleigh-based Fountainworks business management consulting firm, emphasized the sharing of ideas and perspectives on town issues. Topics weren’t carefully defined, but hot-button issues and the comments they triggered demonstrated that elected officials and town staff members acknowledge an uneasiness lingering from November’s election.
Getting over the ‘trust hump’
Town Clerk Carmen Clemsic, usually responsible for documenting discussions and decisions, earned the distinction of designating a primary concern as the “trust hump.” It was a subject that fueled a range of comments from commissioners and staff members.
“Everybody is hyper-sensitive,” Fort said about the challenges commissioners and staff members are facing after a combative and, for Davidson, uncharacteristically harsh campaign. “One hundred percent of the town is upset right now. Two-thirds of the people voted for change, and they have hope about what will happen, but they are unsure. And one-third of them, those who wanted to keep things the same, are upset about how things evolved. Because of that, we’ll have to be better than we should have to be.”
“Last year was a tumultuous time ... and there seems to be a feeling that we are the barbarians at the gate,” Sitton said, referencing himself and other new commissioners who were endorsed in the campaign by the Save Davidson advocacy organization. “But we’re not trying to alter the last 20 years. It’s just that there were some recent changes that were not what we envisioned for Davidson.”
Campbell said her personal “elephant in the room” was the fact she wasn’t one of the ballot choices backed by Save Davidson. And she said that has led to almost daily interactions with residents who view her as being “on the other side” of some issues.
“That’s not me. I will be hyper-vigilant to remain open to all residents,” she said. “I think it’s vital that we represent all of Davidson.”
Fuller, the lone returning member of the town council, said he wouldn’t categorized it as an elephant in the room – “maybe it has moved from a Chihuahua to a Shetland pony” – but he’s heard from some who view his election as support from “traditional Davidson.”
“I don’t see it like that,” he said. “I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward. I don’t think of myself as a carryover but a new member of the new board, and I’m looking forward to working with everybody.”
Staff members were not as vocal on the trust issue, but Fire Chief Bo Fitzgerald did reference some lingering scars from the election.
“There were some nasty things said about staff members, and some board members,” Fitzgerald said. “And I think everyone just wants to know they won’t be thrown under the bus.”
Fuller acknowledged Fitzgerald’s comments and said the element of trust, among elected officials and between elected officials and staff members, is vital.
“I think it’s important that what we say should not be attacks,” Fuller said, “but just airing opinions.”
“Airing opinions is one thing,” Fitzgerald said, “but stoking the fire of social media is different.”
A common goal
While identifying and accepting the “humps” in their path, elected officials and staff members, throughout the various sessions of the mini-retreat, stated repeatedly that while they might view specific issues differently, they were all, as Town Manager Jamie Justice said during his opening remarks, “working together as a team to do what’s best for Davidson.”
“I think the citizens did a good job of electing a diverse group of thinkers,” Fort said. “We’re all driving in the same direction, I think, but I also don’t think you’re going to see a lot of 5-0 votes. We have a diverse group of people so, by definition, we’re going to see things differently.”
And that’s an advantage to Fuller as well.
“Healthy sparring is a good thing,” Fuller said, adding that what he and Michael teamed up to label “disagreeing with civility” is a positive way to share opinions and reach a common goal.
“I don’t think there is any weakness in trying to find the middle ground,” he said.