NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Though two new elected members on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners result in the same party makeup, commissioners are signaling this new board will feature newfound cooperation and unity.
Monday, Republican commissioners Bill Rivenbark and Deb Hays were sworn into their first terms, taking the place of outgoing Republican commissioners, Woody White and Pat Kusek.
Democratic commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. was sworn in to a fourth term on the board; Democratic commissioners Julia Olson-Boseman and Rob Zapple still have two years left on their terms.
The top vote-getter, Rivenbark, likely benefitted from name recognition this election cycle. His brother, Charlie Rivenbark, is serving his fifth term on Wilmington City Council. Plus, Bill Rivenbark was recently serving on the New Hanover County Schools Board of Education, leaving his seat halfway through his term after being elected as a county commissioner.
His comments after taking his oath of office were brief but clear: “I may not always decide things the way you want them but I will decide the way I think is best for New Hanover County.”
In an interview, Rivenbark said he was excited to serve the county. “I told someone, I don’t even know 60,000 people. They responded, ‘Well, they know you,'” he said, referencing his election results.
Before this year’s shakeup on the school board and new county commissioners change, Rivenbark said he thought the two boards walked around one another. Now, there will be more collaboration, he said.
(All-out unity remains to be seen; though the new county board unanimously approved bonuses for school employees Monday, the new school board was split on approving the county’s policy recommendation to return to full-time in-person instruction Tuesday.)
Re-elected chair, new vice chair
Olson-Boseman was unanimously re-elected as chair. Rivenbark nominated Hays to serve as vice chair, in a motion that was unanimously approved.
Before the new members were sworn in, Olson-Boseman shared heartfelt goodbyes with her vice chair, Kusek, and former political-rival-turned comrade, White.
Both ran for the same state senate seat in 2004, which Olson-Boseman won, in a contentious race that soured their relationship for more than a decade.
Depending on who you ask, their recent alliance is either seen as a sign of rare political compromise amid heated partisanship or proof that Olson-Boseman abandoned the party that helped elect her. This year she sided with Republicans on key votes, forming a powerful voting block majority alongside Kusek and White.
At the meeting, she turned to White, recalling a story she recently told her son.
“The other night I told him the story of these two people that just hated each other for 14 years — how they didn’t talk to each other, they thought the other person was just the epitome of everything bad and represented everything bad. Until one day, those two people sat down and had a conversation. And they realized that they had so much more in common than they had apart,” she said.
Her son told her she tells the best stories, Olson-Boseman said. “I’m like son, this one was true,” she said.
After the meeting, Olson-Boseman said she was optimistic in the new board’s ability to collaboratively get work done.
“This board is going to have a different tone,” she said.
Pointing to the board’s unanimous and surprise vote to give all 3,400 New Hanover County Schools employees a $750 bonus, she said the new board is already forging a new, more collaborative path forward.
Olson-Boseman gave credit to her new vice chair, Hays, who managed to change one element of the proposal before even being sworn in. The two have already formed a strong alliance, with Olson-Boseman planning to involve Hays in key work sessions. Hays insisted the bonuses get paid out prior to Christmas, Olson-Boseman said, instead of January, as previously considered.
“I was pretty intent on, if we’re going to do this, I wanted them to have that money before the Christmas break because I just felt that was important,” Hays said.
“You can’t wait until that magical moment and then sit down and be expected to go through items that are huge,” she said, explaining her work on the matter in recent weeks.
Typically, chair and vice-chair roles get assigned to more senior elected officials. Though Hays is technically a freshman on the board, she has a wealth of civic experience.
Fellow commissioners already have a working relationship with Hays; she has served on the boards of Airlie Gardens and Wilmington Downtown Inc. alongside Zapple and served as Barfield’s predecessor as president of the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors in 2006 before he took on the role in 2007. She also previously served as chair of the City of Wilmington Planning Commission for eight years.
After taking her seat for the first time, Hays let out an exuberant — if not relieved — “Woohoo! We did it!”
She lost her two previous bids for public office by razor-thin margins. In 2017, Hays was 80 votes shy of earning a spot on Wilmington City Council behind Clifford Barnett. In 2015, she fell just 89 votes behind former councilman Paul Lawler in the same race.
“It was a very happy moment when those election results came in,” Hays said. ‘That was a real, real happy moment for me.”
Hays similarly shared confidence in the new board’s ability to work together. “I think we’re just going to see a very dynamic change not only on the county commission but on the school board and really work together to get things done,” she said. “That’s what we’re all about. Collaborate, cooperate, get it done.”
Though not quite as optimistic as his counterparts, Zapple did say he was hopeful in increased transparency. Last year, a majority of commissioners began cancelling agenda preview meetings — meetings held ahead of an official vote that allow staff, commissioners, and the public to better understand items before action is taken.
“It’s even a tiny thing, but to me, it was really distressing last year when the three commissioners voted to disband or discontinue agenda briefings,” Zapple explained. “It’s a full opportunity for the public to engage and also our county staff to have a deeper dive into agenda items before we get to the dais in the general meeting.”
In 2021, this new slate of commissioners will regularly participate in agenda preview meetings.
“That one small step has happened, which I think is a reflection of at least a crack in the door to kind of let some sunshine come into what had become a really closed situation,” Zapple said. “Which I disagreed with.”
Last year, he said he was turned down by a majority of commissioners after requesting work sessions with both school board and city elected officials. Zapple said he couldn’t understand why his board wouldn’t want to sit down and work out budgetary topics with other elected boards. He pointed to these moves as a reason behind past discord on the board. “Some of it’s a philosophical difference in the way we approach government — I get that. But for me, it’s how we approach communication,” he said.
Unless joined by his Democratic colleague, Barfield, in dissent, Zapple often found himself as the only commissioner pushing back on certain items. That could continue, but for now, he said he’s hopeful of a change. Zapple said he was impressed with Hays’ ability to communicate openly and is looking forward to working with Rivenbark.
“The dynamic is clearly different,” he said. “Just having the new personalities, both of which I’ve known prior to this, has been really helpful.”
As the most senior board member, Barfield Jr. took his oath alongside the original Jonathan Barfield. “He happens to be the only other African American to serve on the board of county commissioners since 1898,” Barfield Jr. said of his father. “I find that I’m walking right in his footsteps.”
Though slightly more centrist compared to Zapple, Barfield Jr. has said politics does not inform his political decision-making — the Bible does.
“I’m a pastor at heart,” Barfield Jr. said after taking his oath. “And the Lord will indeed speak to you and tell you the right thing to do.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org