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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Familiar characters to fill new roles in Carolina Beach following election

Phillip Murray, who sat with the group pictured in center, said he drove from Raleigh to Carolina Beach even though family and friends had expressed concern. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Two familiar beach town politicians lead their races and are poised to take over new roles. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

CAROLINA BEACH — A current councilman, former mayor and longtime local emerged from election night in Carolina Beach with new roles, according to unofficial results. 

Beach voters, tasked with choosing their next mayor and filling two spots on town council, had no incumbents to select from. Lynn Barbee, elected to town council in 2019, placed first in the mayoral race with 59.5% of the vote share compared to Dan Wilcox’s 40%. 

With 995 votes in the town council race — nearly 150 fewer than the top vote-getter of 2019 — former mayor Joe Benson leads the pack. He’s trailed by Mike Hoffer, a building inspector who’s been involved in the local scene since moving to the beach in 2003, with 935 votes. 

In third place, just below the cutoff, current planning and zoning commissioner Deb LeCompte is at 915 votes, just 20 votes behind Hoffer.

There were 477 provisional ballots in the New Hanover County election, meaning questions existed about the voters’ eligibility. These ballots, which will be analyzed by the board of elections to determine the number of votes that will count, have the potential to shake up close races in the county once tallied. 

Barbee, the chief information officer at Atlantic Corporation of Wilmington, will take the helm of Carolina Beach from Mayor LeAnn Pierce, who did not run for re-election this year, as she eyes the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners race in 2022. 

“This council will need to quickly appoint someone to fill my vacated council seat,” Barbee wrote in an email. “We have a good pool of qualified residents who could fill the role, we just need to find the right fit.  I will insist that we put down any politics and focus on fitness to serve.”

Pierce agreed. She informed Barbee and the other victors that filling the new mayor’s vacancy should be top priority. In December, there will be a changing of the guard, and then the new council will quickly be thrown into the job with budget workshopping in January. 

“It’s not good for the council to be sitting with an even number of people, in case there’s a disagreement,” Pierce said. “There needs to be an odd number. So I believe the quicker they can do that and get everyone on board, the better off.”

In conversations with voters, Barbee said locals desired a town that was fiscally responsible, balanced in meeting the needs of tourists and residents, and equipped with long-range infrastructure plans. 

Barbee’s first order of business, he told Port City Daily, is parking.

“We have a window between now and March to take a holistic look at our parking program. For most visitors the first impression is an interaction with our parking services. The town has changed, the visitors have changed, the crowds have grown,” Barbee wrote in an email. “However, our program is basically unchanged and it is impacting our visitor experience. Paid parking is a fact of modern life, and few people complain about paying, they complain about frustration finding parking, figuring out how to pay for it, and understanding the rules. We can do better.”

Carolina Beach has cut ties with its parking vendor. Following the path of Wrightsville Beach, it opted to grant its next contract to the upstart company Pivot Parking, which was founded last year. 

READ MORE: Carolina Beach gets existential on parking, soon to hire new vendor

Currently employed by New Hanover County as a building inspector, Hoffer previously served on the Carolina Beach Planning and Zoning Commission, and has helped to spearhead efforts to make the town more easily traversable by foot and bike.

“Obviously some people voted for Mike Hoffer because they liked his vision of a pedestrian-friendly town,” said Pierce, who added she created the bike and pedestrian committee that Hoffer helmed. 

It surprised Hoffer that residents at the polls wanted to dive into talks on town infrastructure, he said. 

“Usually, that’s the kind of topic that the reporters and the really deep insiders want to talk about,” Hoffer said. “But the average person on the street really wanted to talk about that stuff — our water, roads, our stormwater issues. It’s interesting to see how engaged the average person was.”

READ MORE: Private problem, public nuisance? Carolina Beach committee pinpoints 9 properties causing flooding on Canal Drive

Hoffer continued: “To simplify it all, there’s more infrastructure problems than we can fix in the short term.” 

Benson, a former U.S. Air Force special operations leader who released a novel this year, was previously elected mayor in 2017 and helmed the town during Hurricane Florence. Emphasizing patience as a virtue, he said selecting Barbee’s replacement on council will be a transparent process.

Whether it be at Chamber of Commerce meetings or over a beer at the Fat Pelican, “the feedback is constant,” Benson said, “and you always have a pretty good idea of how you’re doing, person-to-person, by just simply being accessible.”

He found himself yearning for a return to town politics and, like other candidates in the race, focused on hyper-local issues.

“When I undertook the campaign, it was infrastructure, water, wastewater, stormwater,” Benson said. “Modernizing the parts of town that are planned to be done, but to do it at a more accelerated pace; ensuring that beach renourishment and inlet dredging projects continue; increasing town parking as a mechanism of revenue generation.”

For Pierce, a hotel owner, her sights now shift from Pleasure Island to the mainland, where she seeks one of two open seats on the board of commissioners  (Julia Olson-Boseman and Rob Zapple’s terms expire at the end of next year).

She plans to file her candidacy in early December and possibly host a kickoff fundraiser soon thereafter. In the meantime, she’ll be reaching out to her many years worth of connections, to start hyping her next move: “I’m tapping on them and saying, ‘Now I need your help,’” Pierce said. 

“I’m 100% behind small business,” Pierce said. “I’m a low taxation person, and I do not like mandates, so I can tell you that’s where I stand at this point.”

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