Election season points to rift in Holly Springs

akenney@newsobserver.comAugust 29, 2013 

— An election-season snub has revealed long-running tension between the town’s elected board and the Holly Springs Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber in September will publish a video voters’ guide with eight candidates’ statements, but it won’t include the words of the incumbent mayor, two incumbent council members or one recent councilman. In fact, no incumbent participated in the exercise.

Pushed for explanations, the candidates and chamber leadership pointed to a tense, near-toxic relationship between the business group and the Holly Springs establishment, from cold shoulders to accusations of underperformance.

For the incumbents and former councilman Hank Dickson, the decision to abstain from the chamber event was a matter of trust. The chamber this year is shifting to a new, videotaped format, and the abstaining candidates said they worried they wouldn’t be treated fairly.

“My level of trust was very, very low. I’m not going to get myself involved with an activity where I just don’t have that level of trust that I need,” said Dickson, who served on the council from 1997 to 2009.

Incumbent Councilwoman Linda Hunt Williams said she was concerned because the chamber didn’t release questions beforehand.

“When we asked questions they wouldn’t respond to us, and they were very secretive about it. ... It just left a foul taste in my mouth,” said Williams, who also criticized the perceived expense of the new video format.

Chris “Scoop” Green, executive director of the chamber, said his group was trying to put the voters’ guide in a more-convenient, informative format. The chamber does not make endorsements or take sides in the election, he said, but he did suggest that the nation in general needs younger, more diverse elected officials.

“I think there’s value in having diversity and a younger age group who are actively involved with their community and care about their community, and they’re not doing this for a self-promoting agenda,” Green said.

He acknowledged that the chamber and the town’s elected board have not been close, though the chamber receives between $30,000 and $40,000 of town funding each year and is tasked with promoting and developing local business. Its membership includes more than 300 business owners and managers.

“My suggestion is the olive branch has been extended on multiple occasions, and I think it’s time for folks in Town Hall to be more honest in what they’re upset about,” Green said.

He pointed as an example to a meeting in September 2010, when council members questioned the chamber’s decision to publish a business directory as a magazine insert instead of a freestanding publication.

At the time, Councilman Chet VanFossen jokingly suggested that chamber leadership be cuffed and dragged into Town Hall for “the third degree.”

In a recent interview, Green recalled the “anger and hatred” in the council members’ voices at that meeting.

“Is that what you want in your leaders?” asked Green, who has been the chamber’s director since 2004.

For their part, council members have a host of complaints.

“The chamber appears to be too eager to get support from businesses outside the community. ... They should be participatory and aggressive,” said Councilman Jimmy Cobb, an incumbent.

Cobb said that the Chamber has offered less support lately for the town’s Christmas parade and its HollyFest event.

Dickson said that his emails to the chamber often went ignored during his council tenure, possibly because he moved to cut funding to the group.

Mayor Dick Sears, who is up for re-election, said the chamber hasn’t been vocal enough in favor of recent town initiatives, including new parks and recreation areas.

“It seems to me that they don’t support a lot of the things or some of the things that we’re doing as a town, that I always thought the chamber would,” he said.

Williams said she has felt disrespected by Green, saying he offers only a cold reception to her at events.

The rift between council and chamber could prove an election issue in an already-heated season. Vinnie DeBenedetto, the mayoral challenger and a former councilman, criticized the incumbents for skipping the voters’ guide, and he said the administration should have a better relationship with the chamber.

Kenney: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @KenneyOnCary

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