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April 28, 2010

Ending the Mount Airy Civil War

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The mayor’s office and two council seats are up for grabs when Mount Airy’s citizens go to the polls to select new leadership for the town May 3.


The town’s voters will choose between Wendi Peters and Patrick Rockinberg to lead the community for (hopefully) the next four years in the mayor’s office. In 2009, a total of three citizens took turns in the mayor’s office in a year of public bickering and disagreement.


Mount Airy has stayed in the news in recent years with political turmoil, allegations of ethics violations, quarrels over growth and annexations, recreation, and water. It is time for the soap opera to stop.


Of the two candidates for mayor, Mount Airy citizens would be wise to turn over the challenges of the mayor’s office to Councilwoman Wendi Peters.


It was as early as 1993 that residents began to realize that the growth and development initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s were imperiling the town.


In short, the post World War II population trends, which witnessed a flight of citizens to the cities, had reversed and now urban refugees were fleeing the decline of the cities to come to the suburbs and places like Mount Airy.


Who could blame them? Once the new residents arrived they determined that they would not allow the problems associated with urban population density to happen to their newfound home.


The 1993 Mount Airy comprehensive plan observed, “…  Another effect of this growth that is equally important is a growing perception that the qualities of community are being lost.


“Mt. Airy has done well to avoid many development-related problems: however, there is a real concern that the qualities of Mt. Airy that attract new residents are becoming endangered by the development that accommodates this growth.”


That last paragraph came to a head on May 1, 2006, when voters overwhelmingly said that they did not want the town to annex 163 acres of property known as the Zeltman farm that had been in the town’s master plan for 10 years.


Fast-forward to this year’s election and by now all the candidates “get it” – that an overwhelming majority of citizens want Mount Airy to stay a small town.


Mount Airy faces a daunting gauntlet of challenges that have either been ignored or mismanaged while the annexation civil war was laying waste to the very quality of life and sense of community of which the virulent anti-growth and development people were seeking.


New approaches will be necessary to facilitate the state and county relationships necessary to address the community’s future recreation and park needs, schools, devastated economy and business environment, budgetary deficits, water, sanitation and basic infrastructure deterioration.


Of the two mayoral candidates Councilwoman Peters has the experience to address the town’s challenges and facilitate new ideas and approaches.


Those who have observed municipal governance for decades understand that the difference between being a community organizer and the chief executive officer is huge.


Mr. Rockinberg seems like someone who is interested in the best interests of the community. However the bulk of his campaign seems to be based on marketing the problems as opposed to marketing the solutions and demonizing the difficult decisions that Ms. Peters has faced for longer than he has been a resident of the town.


It is very hard to get to a positive by emphasizing the negative. There is more to governing a small community than moving into a new development and saying “no” to all future developments.


If Mr. Rockinberg is truly interested in future leadership, it would behoove him to serve on the town council to better acquaint himself with the conundrums of an elected official.


Ms. Peters has the collective benefit of three generations of Mount Airy elected officials to help guide her in the perilous waters that lay ahead for Mount Airy.


There were several critical moments in this election campaign. One, when asked at the candidates’ forum how he was going to bring the community together in the future, Mr. Rockinberg cited his leadership in the bitter and divisive town election in 2006.


Many will argue that the decisions citizens made in that pivotal election were appropriate for the future of the community; but was it really necessary to lead the community to that conclusion with such unpleasant tactics; and is this indicative of how he will lead the community to the right choices in the future?


If so, many voters would be wise to vote for someone who has a track record of making difficult decisions and learning from what worked – or did not work in the past – like Ms. Peters. And not opting for Mr. Rockinberg’s Machiavellian leadership in which he is proud of the scorched community left in the wake of leading the community in the “right” direction.


The other profound moment was the endorsement of Ms. Peters by B.J. Dixon, who recently retired after serving 30-years as an employee of Mount Airy town government.


Ms. Dixon spoke for many: “Having worked with Wendi over the years, I believe she has the experience to lead the town into the future. Wendi understands the workings of our government; she is a problem solver and possesses the ability to stand up and take on tough decisions.


“We need to quit drawing lines in the sand. We need stability and continuity back in our town. We need Wendi Peters to do just that. With her experience, her leadership and her commitment…”


Many agree that Mount Airy needs someone with the experience, knowledge, and abilities that only result from decades in the arena making the difficult decisions and having the scars to show for it. It’s time to end the great Mount Airy civil war – it’s time to concentrate on the future.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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