ROCKINGHAM — The new Richmond County Board of Commissioners’ first order of business Tuesday was the election of a new chairman and vice chairman.
On a split vote conducted by County Manager Bryan Land, Commissioner Jeff Smart beat out veteran Commissioner Rick Watkins 4-3 for the chairman position, and Justin Dawkins was voted in as vice chairman ahead of veteran Commissioner Tavares Bostic.
Unfortunately, due to this meeting being held by audio conference with no roll call vote, it was unclear exactly how the votes were cast.
Prior to the meeting, Smart and Dawkins were sworn in as commissioners, along with Toni Maples and Andy Grooms.
All four of the new board members are Republicans. Grooms, Smart and Maples were elected in November, unseating Democrat Jimmy Capps. Kenneth Robinette and John Garner, who served in the top spots for more than 20 years, declined to run this year. Dawkins was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Ben Moss — the first Republican elected to the board in more than a century — who won his bid for the N.C. House of Representatives.
The partisan makeup of the board gives Republicans a 4-3 advantage over Democrats Watkins, Bostic and Don Bryant, the latter having the most time on the board. Watkins and Bostic were elected in 2018.
Following the vote and as the agenda was being approved for the meeting, Watkins asked to speak.
“My comments are not personal at all but they are focused on the duties and responsibilities of us as a corporate board,” Watkins said.
Watkins noted that he has for the last 11 years been involved in training future school principals and superintendents, with much time spent on board relations.
“It’s real simple,” he said, “one of the best practices is all board members should receive all information regarding board activities at the same time without fail, all members, all the time, every time, at the same time.”
Watkins said he felt like that standard was not applied to any formal or informal discussion regarding leadership of the new board prior to the first meeting Monday evening.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Smart stressed his pure business and matter-of-fact style saying, “I will take this position very seriously. Let there be no confusion; I’m here to represent the best interest of the people of Richmond County, all the people in the county as well as the municipalities.”
Smart then took aim at local municipal leaders saying, “The lawsuits need to stop and they need to stop now.”
These comments were apparently directed toward a recent complaint filed by several residents as well as the City of Hamlet and Town of Dobbins Heights last week concerning zoning changes to property on Marks Creek Church Road.
Smart suggested the local residents would rather see county and city leaders sit down and work out disagreements without spending tax dollars on lawsuits.
“Give this board a chance, lawsuits are not the way to make progress,” he said. “Let’s come together as a team and do what’s best for Richmond County.”
Land updated the board on COVID-19 saying, “Our numbers and hospitalizations continue to increase and we are nearing capacity.”
There have now been 2,063 positive cases in Richmond County with 20,880 total tests, 18,817 negative test results and 1,774 who have recovered. As of Monday there were 247 active cases and 42 deaths in the county.
The Richmond County Health department has announced an expansion of COVID-19 testing at three locations. On Monday-Friday throughout December, tests will be administered at the Health Department back parking lot (127 South Caroline St.) between the hours of 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tests will also be available in the Cole Auditorium parking lot at Richmond Community College Dec. 7-11 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. In Ellerbe, testing will be available Dec. 14-18 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
William R. Toler contributed to this story.