GARNER — As the Town Council has occasionally vented frustration with the county over the perception that Garner doesn’t get the attention of other municipalities, Mayor Ronnie Williams has recently been heard at a council meeting quipping “you heard who the new county chair is, don’t you?”
Phil Matthews, a Garner Republican who worked with Williams in years past on Garner’s Town Council -- and once ran against him for mayor -- was sworn in last week as the new chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. He won a party-line 4-3 vote over Democrat Betty Lou Ward.
For Garner, it means that the man taking the lead in setting the county’s agenda will, at the very least, be familiar with the town’s concerns and respond to local leaders -- if not go the way they’d like on every issue.
“Anytime that a resident of Garner can move up to leadership position in the county there’s a reasonable assumption they might be able to help the town they live in,” Williams said. “It gives you a little edge to be in the No. 1 position.”
Matthews agrees with town leaders on some issues. But one in particular, expanded options of public transit, did not rank nearly as high on his list of county priorities as it does on Garner’s.
Garner has advocated for the Triangle Transit’s plan of a Chapel Hill-Durham-Raleigh commuter rail system that features proposed stations in downtown Garner and in Garner’s Greenfield industrial park. Leaders believe it could spur even more development in areas already in the midst of changes such as massive pending developments at White Oak and the marketing of a newly-cleaned ConAgra commercial site.
Matthews, along with his GOP colleagues, has proven more leery of investing in any form of rail and prefers expanded bus service until ridership levels are more assured. That majority has stopped Wake from joining Durham and Orange counties, which have moved on bond measures.
“We’re still moving forward with (transit),” Matthews said when asked about it after he bought up a few other priorities first. “We’re just taking our time and making sure we make the right decisions. That will be an item on our agenda and put it on our list of priorities.”
Williams has said he pushed Matthews in the direction of rail (like other municipal leaders in the county have), with no real success.
“I think what stands out first and foremost is the position the county commissioners have taken on trasit or even their decision to even discuss transit,” Williams said.
Caroline Sullivan, a Democratic commissioner, said she hoped Matthew’s hometown interests could prompt him to at least re-examine the idea.
“I think it would be a tremendous boost for Downtown Garner. I would hope we can at least take a look at it and start talking about it,” Sullivan said.
At the same time, with the makeup of the board unchanged, Sullivan also said she did not expect a vast shift in priorities.
The board just listened to a presentation from three academics it hired that said Wake County wasn’t ready yet, though reports of decreased reliance on car transport and expected congestion during the I-40 rebuild could change the landscape.
Williams called into question the consultants tabbed by the Commission to study the issue.
“I think they’re probably going to tell them what they want to hear,” Williams said. “Talking to people on a regular basis, they favor transit.”
Matthews also aims to focus on emergency services while looking at establishing an emergency operations center. He also said he wants to revisit current extra-territorial jurisdiction boundaries (unincorporated areas where towns have limited jurisdiction and where they are projected to grow). And he has a close eye on the school system’s bond-spending on capital projects, which he thinks could be more effectively run by the Commissioners.
“We still believe we can buy the property and build the schools and save money and do a more effective job of it than the school system. We had the hiccup in the legislature, but we’ll see how that gets going,” Matthews said.
A bill moving responsibility for school facilities from the school board to the commissioners stalled in last year’s legislative session.
Matthews, who says he has family teaching, also said teachers -- good teachers in particular -- should be paid more, and that he’d look for ways to work toward that end.
‘Hands-on, boots on the ground’
Matthews got his political start on the Garner Board of Aldermen (now the Town Council). After two terms he lost his seat to Ken Marshburn in 2007. But he re-emerged in 2010 to win a seat on the Commission. (He represents most of southern Wake County including Garner and Fuquay-Varina but Commissioners face election county-wide.)
Mattehws also lost an election for mayor in 2005.
Garner, like the county commissioners, could find itself in a pickle with the school board. The council has debated withholding permits to get some concerns over the bond project addressed, a tactic Matthews once used while on the council himself in 2007.
“That is a very effective means of getting the school board’s attention. And I agree with the town on that one,” Matthews said. “It’s no secret we’ve had conflict with the school board.”
Conflict doesn’t bother the Army veteran of the Vietnam War who calls himself a “hands-on, boots on the ground” type who plans to be very visible. He said his personal style could mark the biggest difference between he and outgoing chair Joe Bryan, a fellow Republican from Knightdale he described as a very good friend.
“Joe was probably a bit more easy going. He kind of has a milder demeanor,” Matthews said. “I’m probably more direct on things, results-oriented, don’t let things get bogged down on committees.”
Matthews faces re-election next fall. Fuquay-Varina lawyer Matt Calabria has announced his intent to challenge him.
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland