Way Down Ballot, A Little-Noticed Race With Lots Of Candidates
The ballot in Mecklenburg County this fall lists five pages of races, from president on down. At the very bottom is a race few know much about: Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor. It's unusually competitive this year.
Mecklenburg Soil & Water Conservation District traces its origins to 1940. It's one of 96 districts serving North Carolina's 100 counties. The districts work with landowners to fight erosion, protect water quality and promote environmentally friendly agricultural practices.
These days, most conservation districts are part of county governments. Mecklenburg's isn't. It's independent, with just one employee - the conservation district manager.
The board’s chair, Nancy Carter, who isn’t up for re-election this year, said the manager works not only with the county’s 200 or so farms, but also in urban neighborhoods.
“She works directly with farmers, answering their needs, but she also works with urban landowners, stabilizing steams, stabilizing stream banks, looking at sedimentation and dealing with pet waste, as well as educating our youngsters,” Carter said.
Five supervisors set priorities and approve projects. The soil and water district helps arrange state grants, to help farmers or landowners pay for the work.
Two supervisors are appointed, three are elected, in staggered terms. A couple of years ago, the board had trouble finding a volunteer for one of the appointed seats. This year, there’s a five-way race for one elected seat.
Why all the interest?
A bit of publicity has helped, from high-profile projects like helping to arrange badly needed dredging at Brown's Cove. That's a Lake Wylie inlet that silted up after years of nearby development, including a new runway at Charlotte-Douglas airport, and construction of I-485.
Carter said there’s just more interest in the district’s work: “It’s also a question of environmental interest, and that to me is a crucial point.”
Meanwhile, Carter said, it's a presidential election year, so more people are paying attention to the ballot.
This time around, political parties recruited candidates. Although it's nonpartisan and its work is mostly nonpolitical, the soil and water board can be an entry-level post for someone with political ambitions. Charlotte City Council member John Autry got his start that way.
The incumbent in this year’s race is Brad Johnson, a Davidson College geology professor who studies streams and erosion. He was appointed three years ago after an elected supervisor stepped down.
"And they said, 'Oh, FYI, that's a county elected seat, and if you want to keep sitting in that after 2016 you'll have to run for it,'” Johnson said.
Johnson took me into the woods in Cornelius the other day to visit one of the 17 streams he's monitoring for a research project.
He says his knowledge of land-use, streams and erosion is important as the board decides which projects to pursue. And he’s proud of his work on the Brown’s Cove settlement.
“The cove went from being a deep water cove where everyone kept their boats, to a foot of water in a marsh. So all of these people had docks that were now basically useless. So it was a pretty big dredging operation,” he said.
The Soil & Water board lined up grant money and got developers and landowners to agree to share the project's half-million-dollar cost.
Challenger Vonnie Brown of Charlotte is a member of the Sierra Club. He's a mortgage specialist by day, and serves on several community boards. He’s also first vice president of the county Young Democrats. He wants to work on a couple of issues:
“Our drinking water meets federal standards, but our rivers and streams, they're not up to federal standards. So investing in programs that help get those cleaned up is one,” Brown said.
Community awareness is another. Brown said he’d like to see more community meetings and partnerships with groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or neighborhood associations.
Eric Erickson is a first-time candidate, though he’s worked on campaigns for other Democrats. He grew up on a farm in the Moore's Chapel area west of Charlotte, where he first learned about the Soil & Water district.
“I understood at a young age that you have to conserve, and you have to preserve, and you also have to be concerned about chemicals, when you livestock and you're growing a garden, with pesticides, things of that nature,” Erickson said.
Erickson is a state domestic violence officer, has a master's degree in organizational management, and is a member of the Charlotte Tree Fund.
Lisa Rudisill is another Charlotte native. She said her family has been in the area since the 18th century. Her big issue is drinking water.
“I'm especially concerned about the Catawba River, and I thought this might be a good way to help educate people about conservation,” she said.
Rudisill, who ran for county commission in 2012, says she's a "problem solver." She has done nonprofit fundraising and works as a chaplain. She runs a nonprofit called Paul's Hope and serves on the Foxhole Landfill Advisory Council.
The final candidate, Doug Hanks, ran unsuccessfully for Soil & Water supervisor in 2012. He owns land in Stokes County, where he says he has been a "private conservation officer" for 21 years.
In 2005, Hanks ran for Charlotte City Council, but withdrew after it came out that he had posted 4,000 messages on a white supremacist website. He says it was research for novel ... which was published, by a group that caters to survivalists.
His main concern is keeping our water supply and electric grid safe from terrorist attacks.
"I would like to work with Soil and Water, dealing with Charlotte Water and Duke Power, to try and identify some of these risks, and eliminate them,” he said.
None of these candidates is running for the money. Whoever wins gets to be a volunteer for the next four years.
Candidate bios and questionnaires, on the League of Women Voters election site, Vote411.org
League of women voters debate on WTVI, on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SluAePqROc8