Big changes in Southampton

Published 9:17 am Saturday, November 12, 2011

Three people I wouldn’t want to be come Jan. 1: Mike Johnson, Charles Turner and John Smolak.

Or Russell Schools, for that matter.

The four challengers who rode a tidal wave of voter dissatisfaction Tuesday to seats on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors will take office next year with a mandate as clear as mandates get in politics. That mandate includes radical change in county government spending and borrowing, in public education oversight, and in economic development accountability.

Alan Edwards, Bruce Phillips, Barry Porter and Glenn Updike ran as an anti-status quo slate in Tuesday’s election, and they will constitute an instant majority of the seven-member Board of Supervisors when they take the oath of office in a couple of months.

The Southampton challengers’ clean sweep was reminiscent of voter discontent in Franklin three years ago when Benny Burgess and Barry Cheatham won seats on the City Council. But there’s a big difference: Burgess and Cheatham, as just two votes on a seven-member board, had to piece together a working majority with some incumbent council members just to pass a few modest fiscal reforms. It’s been a shaky alliance, cemented in recent months by a mutual dislike of council newcomer Greg McLemore.

The new faces on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors will require no such coalition-building or fence-mending. They will bring to office the power to immediately implement the platform that got them elected.

Here’s how some key players are affected:

n County Administrator Mike Johnson: The veteran administrator has built a lot of budgets in his career, but none will be as difficult as the one his new bosses will insist that he craft for fiscal 2013. The non-negotiable pieces include no increase in the real estate or personal property tax rates and continuation of land-use taxation, which shifted much of the county’s tax burden from farmers to homeowners. Throw in debt-service obligations that the new board will inherit from their predecessors and lower assessed values as a result of the current property reassessment round, and Johnson will be making deeper and more painful cuts than county government has ever experienced. The interesting question: Will voters like what they asked for when fiscal conservatism goes from campaign slogan to reality?

n Schools Superintendent Charles Turner and School Board Chairman Russell Schools: The new Board of Supervisors will likely protect instructional funding for the county’s public schools, but it will insist that administrative spending be slashed. That will mean the elimination of much support staff and Turner himself working much harder than he is accustomed to working.

Look also for the new board to move quickly to end the county’s antiquated method of choosing school board members. The de facto lifetime appointments that the current appointment system has wrought will be a thing of the past, and Schools’ decades-long iron grip on the county school board will end.

n Franklin-Southampton Economic Development President John Smolak: The Board of Supervisors does not hire and fire the leader of the community’s public-private economic development entity, but FSEDI will be held more accountable than at any time in its six-year existence.

To their credit, none of the four supervisor newcomers advocated disbanding or defunding FSEDI when asked the question directly at a recent candidate forum. However, each expressed deep dissatisfaction with results of the significant investment the county has made in economic development.

Translation: We have to have a horse on the track, but it’s time to win some races.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is