With the general election for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approaching on Nov. 3, six candidates are vying to fill the board’s three vacant seats.
Republican candidates in the race include Deb Hays, who served as the chair of the Wilmington Planning Commission for eight years, New Hanover County School Board member Bill Rivenbark and former New Hanover commissioner Skip Watkins.
The three democratic candidates include incumbent Jonathan Barfield, former N.C. House District candidate Leslie Cohen and former Democratic nominee for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District Kyle Horton.
A commissioner seat comes with an annual salary of just under $18,000, medical, dental and vision benefits, as well as an optional allowance for driving and cellphone use.
Early voting begins Oct. 15 and will continue until Oct. 31
Date of birth: 01/12/1966 (54)
Address: 4720 Archer Drive Wilmington, NC 28409
Education: Some College
Profession: Broker\Owner Barfield & Associates Realty
Political affiliation/experience: Democrat serving three, four year terms on the New Hanover County Board of County Commissioners
Date of birth: June 13, 1965 (55)
Address: Committee to Elect Leslie Cohen, P.O. Box 12885 Wilmington, NC 28405
Education: Attended Emory University (as the youngest student at that time to be admitted), University of Georgia at Athens, and Georgia State University
Profession: My husband and I ran a commercial design business before I became a full-time fine art painter.
Political affiliation/experience: Democrat; candidate for N.C. House District 20 in 2018
Date of birth: December 20th
Address: 1900 Eastwood Road, Suite 38 Wilmington, NC 28403
Education: BA, DePauw University; IBM Masters Program
Profession: Realtor/broker with Intracoastal Realty
Political affiliation/experience: Republican; Wilmington Planning Commission Chair, Wilmington Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, Wilmington Downtown Inc. Vice Chair, WARM Board of Directors, Airlie Gardens Foundation Board, Wilmington Housing Authority, Chamber of Commerce Board of Advisors, Leadership Wilmington Graduate, Alumnus of the Year Award, Azalea Festival Committee Chair, Lump to Laughter, Community Leaders Task Force for Housing, YMCA Volunteer of the Year.
Date of birth: 06/09/1979 (41)
Address: Elect Kyle Horton, P.O. Box 991 Carolina Beach, NC 28428
Education: B.S. in Biology, 2001, University of North Carolina at Wilmington; (M.B.A.), 2008, Wright State University Raj Soin College of Business in Dayton, OH; (M.D.), 2008, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, OH
Profession: Internal medicine physician and public policy advocate
Political affiliation/experience: Democrat, Democratic nominee for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District in 2018
Date of birth: 05/11/1953 (67)
Address: 5601 Captains Lane, Wilmington, NC 28409
Education: New Hanover High School
Profession: Retired – former owner of Rivenbark’s Restaurant and ez2Bgreen recycling, previous Food & Beverage Manager, Winston Hospitality, automobile sales manager at Bruce Cavenaugh’s Automart & Cape Fear Ford
Political affiliation/experience: Republican; current member of New Hanover County School Board
Date of birth: Personal security information that I do not release
Address: Wilmington, NC
Education: Bachelors of Science in Business Administration UNCW and Masters in Business Administration UNCW
Profession: Investor Advisor and Adjunct Economics Instructor with the University of Mount Olive
Political affiliation/experience: Republican, elected NHC Commissioner 2014-2018 and the multiple committees that come with the responsibility
What is the biggest challenge facing New Hanover County and what policy decisions do you believe would help tackle it?
Barfield: Housing Affordability: I voted with others on my board to establish a joint County\City Affordable Housing Committee to study this serious issue and make recommendations to our respective boards. We have appointed a dedicated staff person to lead this charge. … Housing affordability I believe is at the top of the list in terms of critical issues that need to be addressed if we want to keep millennials in our community and attract new jobs to our county.
Cohen: Even before Hurricane Florence hit in 2018, New Hanover County struggled with an affordable housing crisis. Hundreds more families lost their homes in the storm and with increased demand, rent prices subsequently spiked even further. Now, with the global pandemic leaving many families with decreased income and eviction and foreclosure restrictions lifting, we find ourselves in a bigger crisis than ever. Families without safe, secure housing face health risks, mental health risks and employment challenges.
Hays: Education, affordable and available healthcare, housing opportunity/affordability, infrastructure, economic growth and quality of life for all. We are at a point of great opportunity to truly make a difference. Let’s listen and communicate to establish commonalities and use our uniqueness to propel us forward to a greater good; celebrating our differences with true understanding.
Horton: The biggest issue facing New Hanover County is the lack of accountability and transparency in our leadership. I share the concerns of many that this has enabled backroom deals, apparent self-dealing schemes, environmental contamination, underfunding of our schools, and breaches of the public trust like the hospital sale. To address this, I would put back the public agenda meetings and add a series of budget development meetings in concert with the school board and school superintendent.
Rivenbark: The biggest challenge facing our county is effectively managing the growth of the area. By this, I mean doing nothing is not an option. We must keep our residents safe and healthy, protect our environment, keep funding our schools to keep pace with the population growth, technology and meeting the basic needs of all children when they are not being met at home.
Watkins: In no particular order, the opioid crisis and mental health are still with us, we need to constantly focus on economic growth (including various categories of jobs with at a minimum strong livable wages), and we need to always properly fund education and stand ready to assist the school board. We cannot forget GenX!
Why are you the best candidate for the position?
Barfield: Proven, trusted leadership. I have had the privilege for the past almost 12 years of serving the citizens of New Hanover County. During that time, I have served as chair of the board four times and vice chair three times. I have demonstrated the ability to lead at the highest level and always being one who answers the phone when citizens call. I have attained a vast array of institutional knowledge that would help bridge the gap for what will be a relatively new board of commissioners.
Cohen: I’m not a politician – I want to solve problems for the citizens of New Hanover County. When I first ran for office it was because I saw a need in my community for leadership that was for the people. I have no aspirations to go to Washington, to become governor or to promote my own business. I just love my community and want to make it a better place. I want to protect our environment and our way of life. …
Hays: I have been a dedicated public servant in this community for 25 years; I live, work, and enjoy this community daily. My resume of leadership roles in many volunteer organizations, commissions, and support agencies is extensive … I plan to continue all those efforts as well as being accessible to the public. I have a long history of responding to the public when they call, text, or email me. Common sense approach focusing on people, not politics!
Horton: The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the tremendous vulnerabilities in public health at a time when the hospital deal is also threatening to disrupt care and drive up healthcare costs. With these very unique challenges threatening our health, safety and economy, now is the time to elect a candidate with experience and expertise relevant to public health policy and economics. … As we work to recover from these unprecedented challenges, integrity and commitment to service will matter …
Rivenbark: A NHC native, I intimately understand the area that was, where we are now, and areas that need attention to maintain our quality of life. I am passionate about preserving our area while supporting quality educational and occupational opportunities for all. Finally, my time on the school board has made me intimately aware of the needs of our public education system and how we must come together to support it for our children, our future.
Watkins: Having served as a NHC commissioner for four years, I have kept up-to-date on issues. I know what to do. I am one of only two candidates that has ever sat in “the chair.” I will hit the ground running. My financial and economics background give me a unique perspective in those areas.
How do you rate the job the current board is doing?
Barfield: Why New Hanover County is one of a handful in the state and country that has two Triple A Bond ratings which translates into tremendous savings for the citizens of New Hanover County and consistently receives state and national awards for its innovative practices. As with any organization and board there will always be room for improvement and it’s important to constantly evaluate where you are and look for ways to improve.
Cohen: The current board is dysfunctional and continuously fails our citizens. Three board members are not communicating with the other two. Agenda planning meetings have been cancelled, robbing department heads of the opportunity to provide the board with proper background information about issues coming before them and to answer questions that board members might have. … This is not what good leadership looks like. This is not what good representation looks like. I want to return civility to the board. …
Hays: The commissioners have set us on a positive course. Living in a vibrant area that continues to attract new residents, we are at a critical point for the future. The work is now to enact for the preservation/protection of our county; moving forward positively, transparently, and openly for all citizens. Committed to maintaining our distinctive character while taking a leadership role in revitalization. Focused on being a place for our citizens and businesses to thrive.
Horton: In recent years, we have suffered from environmental contamination, the opiate crisis, a scandal of abuse in our schools, and shocking racism in policing. We have professed to be the “model of good governance” in our county, but the lack of transparency and breaches of the public trust have failed time and again to show that public opinions matter and are being heard. … Many local leaders have been all too willing to put their own political ideology or the pursuit of profits over the public good.
Rivenbark: Fiscally, I feel like the current board has performed well. Preserving the tax rate while still supporting services, expanding, and improving public spaces, schools, and parks is not an easy feat. I would like to see our county make real commitments to making our school system the best, safest public education system in the state. Our children are our future and it’s up to each of us to ensure we prepare them for success.
Watkins: Why “Judge not lest ye be judged.” I am not concerned about what has happened. I am concerned about the future for our citizens and county.
Defunding police departments is a big topic of conversation. Do you intend to look at funding for the sheriff’s office to see if any money could be better allocated elsewhere? Why, or why not?
Barfield: As a county commissioner for the past almost 12 years as we approach budget season we look at every departments budget for efficiencies and to also they have sufficient resources to carry out their respective missions. I have always found our current sheriff to a great job at managing resources within his budget, and as a whole I have been supportive of the needs of our men and women wearing the sheriff’s department uniform.
Cohen: We are at a pivotal point in the history of our nation and I think we have a real opportunity to examine and redefine how we look at public safety and law enforcement, because clearly our current model is not working. … We need to look at programs that have been successful in reducing crime and recidivism and invest there. That’s really what people are asking for — wise investments of our tax dollars into programs that keep us safer. …
Hays: As a county commissioner, it would be incumbent upon me to review each and every department’s finances and allocation to ensure that the citizens’ tax dollars are being appropriately spent and for the good of all…and that is exactly what I intend to do! I look forward to working closely with the newly formed Office of Diversity and Equity to affect real change to insure all members of our community feel included, respected, and valued.
Horton: … I believe in the accountability of budgets to all of us as taxpayers. While we all value safety, changes to policing and that are reflected in its funding have moved officers into roles they should never have on the frontlines of mental health and substance abuse as well as policing homelessness. … Whether or not we all agree on or understand what is meant by defunding the police, we have to ensure that police budgets reflect what should be the actual role of policing in safety and security. …
Rivenbark: Ronald Reagan once said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.” These are trying times for our community and our nation. People are hurting, reacting to their hurt while others are confused and afraid of what they don’t understand. I’m all for finding ways to support those that need a hand, but not at the expense of our public safety system.
Watkins: I sat through four county budgets. Currently our budget is at $400 million, but there is only a small percentage of discretion outside of established services. I always analyzed the budgets by department. The sheriff’s office was no exception. However the sheriff’s budget has little to no fat in it. I will continue to analyze all budgets, but I will never compromise the mission of our sheriff’s office or any department. … Should a citizen call 911, we need all hands on deck!
Do you believe a reparations initiative is needed for Black residents similar to those approved in Asheville, which could help create generational wealth for the local Black community? Why, or why not?
Barfield: The definition of reparations is “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” I am proud of our board and management team in creating the Office of Diversity and Equity and hiring Linda Thompson to lead this new department. … As citizens of New Hanover County we all pay taxes and I truly believe there should be an equitable distribution of resources to reflect everyone’s equity in the county. …
Cohen: Wilmington and New Hanover County have a history rife with injustices against our Black citizens, from theft to mass murder. … We need to start having the more difficult conversations. We can follow the lead set by Asheville and begin to explore ways to restore opportunities to those who have been systematically robbed of generational wealth. We must find concrete ways to make our Black communities whole again, because until we do, our entire community will continue to suffer. …
Hays: Let’s move forward with a renewed spirit of inclusiveness and fairness; establishing ways to help our citizens out of poverty, out of dependence upon the government, and help them move towards self-sufficiency and establishing generational wealth through equitable education, jobs, and housing initiatives. This country was built on a foundation of equality and justice for all…let New Hanover County be the example for others to follow in a united manner for the good of all.
Horton: … To create lasting impacts on generational wealth for Black residents, we need to address disparities and inequities in healthcare, housing, education, and policing at the local, state, and federal levels. … As your commissioner, I will work with and empower the newly created office of diversity and equity to address structural racism. Know that I will commit to go beyond just symbolic gestures, renaming buildings, and resolutions; I will instead tackle this public health crisis with the kind of action and urgency it merits. …
Rivenbark: Our country has a storied past, including some very dark times. While I think reparations are best addressed at the federal level, I think locally we are charged with creating real opportunity for all of our neighbors. Recruiting quality employers, fully funding our public schools, continuing to support vocational options such as SeaTec, Cape Fear Community College and UNCW are all ways we can create opportunities for our residents to make their paths.
Watkins: First of all what is the definition of “reparations?” In the case of Asheville, NC all that was done was a committee appointed to look at housing and business opportunities for African Americans, no funding has been provided. A left leaning journalist in that region was in fact critical of that decision, basically saying it was lip service. NHCo has only recently established an office of diversity and equity. Let’s see the results and recommendations before any hasty and unfounded decisions …