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‘Demand more of our local officials’: Forum sparks spirited dialogue

Posted on April 21, 2022

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Johnnie Chestnut, left, answers a question beside Councilman Derrick Creech during Wednesday’s candidate forum. Both men are vying for the Wilson City Council’s District 7 seat.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Johnnie Chestnut, left, answers a question beside Councilman Derrick Creech during Wednesday’s candidate forum. Both men are vying for the Wilson City Council’s District 7 seat.

Wilson City Council candidate Betesha Ethridge speaks Wednesday during a candidate forum at Wilson Community College. Ethridge is running to represent District 5.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Wilson City Council candidate Betesha Ethridge speaks Wednesday during a candidate forum at Wilson Community College. Ethridge is running to represent District 5.

Joyah Bulluck, right, answers a question beside fellow Wilson City Council candidate Mark Aldrich during a Wednesday night forum at Wilson Community College. Bulluck is running to represent District 6, while Aldrich is seeking the council’s District 5 seat on the May 17 ballot.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Joyah Bulluck, right, answers a question beside fellow Wilson City Council candidate Mark Aldrich during a Wednesday night forum at Wilson Community College. Bulluck is running to represent District 6, while Aldrich is seeking the council’s District 5 seat on the May 17 ballot.

Wilson Times Editor Corey Friedman, left, moderates a Wednesday candidate forum for Wilson City Council hopefuls in District 3, 5, 6 and 7.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Wilson Times Editor Corey Friedman, left, moderates a Wednesday candidate forum for Wilson City Council hopefuls in District 3, 5, 6 and 7.

Johnnie Chestnut, left, answers a question beside Councilman Derrick Creech during Wednesday’s candidate forum. Both men are vying for the Wilson City Council’s District 7 seat.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Johnnie Chestnut, left, answers a question beside Councilman Derrick Creech during Wednesday’s candidate forum. Both men are vying for the Wilson City Council’s District 7 seat.

Wilson City Council candidate Betesha Ethridge speaks Wednesday during a candidate forum at Wilson Community College. Ethridge is running to represent District 5.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Wilson City Council candidate Betesha Ethridge speaks Wednesday during a candidate forum at Wilson Community College. Ethridge is running to represent District 5.

Wilson City Council candidate Betesha Ethridge speaks Wednesday during a candidate forum at Wilson Community College. Ethridge is running to represent District 5.
Joyah Bulluck, right, answers a question beside fellow Wilson City Council candidate Mark Aldrich during a Wednesday night forum at Wilson Community College. Bulluck is running to represent District 6, while Aldrich is seeking the council’s District 5 seat on the May 17 ballot.
Wilson Times Editor Corey Friedman, left, moderates a Wednesday candidate forum for Wilson City Council hopefuls in District 3, 5, 6 and 7.
Johnnie Chestnut, left, answers a question beside Councilman Derrick Creech during Wednesday’s candidate forum. Both men are vying for the Wilson City Council’s District 7 seat.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 252-265-7821

Incumbents and challengers stressed the need for community involvement and public input during a Wilson City Council candidate forum Wednesday evening.

“I want to invite everyone to have a seat at the table to discuss ideas and let their cares and concerns be heard — not just at election time or when decisions are made, but on a consistent basis,” said Joyah Bulluck, who is running against Karen Wellington and Councilman Logan Liles to represent District 6.

Wilson Times Editor Corey Friedman underscored the council’s influence on  residents’ daily lives in opening remarks for the event, the last of three candidate forums the newspaper held at Wilson Community College’s DelMastro Auditorium ahead of May 17 elections.

“From providing electric, water and natural gas utilities to maintaining the playground equipment at your nearest park, the buck stops with the city council,” Friedman said.

Questions from the moderator’s podium and the audience reflected the scope of council members’ responsibilities throughout the roughly 90-minute forum.

CITY RECREATION

The council voted in February to replace the Reid Street Community Center swimming pool with a splash pad, prompting complaints and appeals to preserve the pool. During their next meeting, council members voted to postpone a decision on the pool’s fate. Forum attendees asked candidates for their take on the project.

“Where do I stand as far as closing the Reid Street pool? I stand with listening to the voices of the constituents and the community,” said Betesha Ethridge, who is running against Mark Aldrich and Councilman Donald Evans to represent District 5. “These conversations we’re having now should have been had over many years that this has been up to discussion prior to now so we wouldn’t feel pressure and feel left out.”

If elected, Ethridge pledged to listen to residents, do her research and work with other council members to find solutions that work for everyone.

Councilman Derrick Creech — who will face Johnnie Chestnut to represent District 7 where the Reid Street center is located — revealed that officials are working to bolster the community center’s amenities, including a football field that he said will be formally announced in the coming weeks.

“My dream for Reid Street center is to make that the hub of our community again,” Creech said. “We need to bring people to our community again, but we need everybody to understand that we need to work together.”

Aldrich called for more sidewalks and recreation options to help children and teens lead active lives.

“We’re impacting the opportunities of kids because of the infrastructure we don’t provide to them,” he said. “Why do kids stay home? Because the parents say, ‘You can’t leave because there is nowhere safe to go.’ When we provide those opportunities, we can then use the resources that we have. We can’t say Reid Street doesn’t have enough people showing up when we don’t provide access to it.”

COMMUNICATION IMPROVEMENTS

One resident expressed concerns about the council’s public transparency.

“I think a lot of people have similar concerns about finding out information when it is almost too late,” Aldrich said. “Whether it is official or unofficial, a lot of times, the decision has already been made.”

Aldrich said he’d advocate to move regular council meetings to city buildings like the Reid Street center where residents feel more comfortable as opposed to City Hall.

Chestnut said residents feel disconnected from officials.

“They say, ‘One for all and all for one,’ but in the city of Wilson, we’re not seeing that,” he said.

Bulluck and Ethridge said they see themselves as building bridges within the community and promoting the sharing of information equally with residents.

“I got the message. You demand more. You require more,” Bulluck said when one resident expressed frustration with inactive elected officials. “Sometimes people get complacent in seats and are not challenged, but we have not because we ask not. It is time to demand more of our local officials.”

CEMETERY COMMISSION

Former Wilson Cemetery Commission chairman Charlie Farris and board member Castonoble Hooks pressed candidates for their take on the commission’s responsibilities and whether Vick Cemetery should fall under the group’s purview.

“The cemetery commission is a solely independent area of government. They make their own rules and manage their own things. They just get money from (the city) and we don’t have any say,” said District 3 Councilman Tom Fyle, who is running unopposed. “It has been this way since the 1830s, I think, and it really hasn’t worked that well over the years, in my opinion.”

Fyle said he wants to study the issue further and possibly switch to a structure that works better for city cemeteries.

Creech said he’d advocate for more oversight so the commission is accountable to stakeholders.

“Cemeteries in my district have come a long way, but they have a long way to go,” he said. “Those on the commission need to be held accountable and work together for our community.”

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Friedman noted that downtown development has been booming but asked what the council members would do to bolster investments in underserved parts of the city.

“As I look around, so much of the area has declined, and I want to restore Wilson to what it could be as one of the best cities in the state,” Wellington said.

Bulluck noted that she moved into Whirligig Station with her two children and enjoys seeing the downtown revitalization on a daily basis. She said she believes the progress provides hope and vision for the rest of Wilson’s revitalization.

“I have one voice, but I promise to use that one voice for our community,” Wellington added. “It may take me more than a year to convince my neighbors, but you’ll hear me speaking up for our youth and our community to enhance all areas of Wilson County.”

Councilmen Evans and Liles didn’t attend due to prior obligations. Contests for the four city council seats will appear on May 17 ballots.

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