MORRISVILLE — Taking the mayoral seat for the first time earlier this month, Mark Stohlman glanced at the Town Council agenda and laughed out loud.
“I didn’t think my first action as mayor would be about a dog kennel,” he joked.
Stohlman’s lighthearted approach seemed to signal a shift, if just a small one, away from the divisiveness that has plagued the Morrisville Town Council for the past two years.
Stohlman, who had previously served as a council member, beat out incumbent mayor Jackie Holcombe in the November election. Voters also elected two political newcomers to the council – TJ Cawley and Vicki Scroggins-Johnson.
Already, the council has voted unanimously on some issues – an unusual occurrence under the old regime.
Even the seating chart has changed. Every three months, council members will rotate seats. It’s all part of Stohlman’s goal to build cooperation among the board.
“What happens is you develop this tunnel vision of who’s next to you,” he said. “It gives you a different perspective where you are sitting. We don’t want to get stale up there. We want to remain fresh. It’s a small thing. It will create better relationships over time.”
During his first term as mayor, Stohlman also wants to stream council meetings online and fix the traffic-congestion issues on Morrisville-Carpenter Road.
“Mark is not flamboyant and is a tremendous student of the issues facing Morrisville,” said Councilman Michael Schlink. “He has demonstrated an ability to work with all his colleagues and get things accomplished. His leadership style is more deliberate and consensus-building, subdued, focusing on the needs of Morrisville, and not personalities.”
A gradual entrance to politics
Stohlman, who grew up with five siblings in Washington, D.C., figures his childhood helped prepare him for a career in politics and team-building.
“You have to learn how to be a good diplomat,” he said. “It was up to us to figure out how to move forward. My parents, they gave us a lot of leeway.”
Stohlman, 55, moved to the Triangle on the heels of a career change. As a newlywed, he quit a lucrative career as a district sales manager for the American Honda Motor Co. in the 1990s to get a master’s degree in accounting from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Since graduating, Stohlman has worked as an accountant for a variety of industries, including nonprofits and health care. He currently works as a controller for the Copernicus Group Independent Review Board in Durham.
In 2000, Stohlman and his family moved to the Weston development of Morrisville, where he was voted onto the homeowners association architectural review board.
“It was when I realized, ‘Wow, if you actually get out of your house and walk around and talk to people and you have an idea that makes sense, most people will listen,’ ” Stohlman said. “And that was the case.”
Stohlman eventually became president of the Weston Estates’ homeowners association board. When there was a vacancy on the Morrisville Town Council, then-councilman Pete Martin approached him about filling the spot.
“I’ve always been one to encourage other people to get involved in government,” Martin said. “One thing I told him is if you decide to get involved, I don’t care what decision you make, you have to make independent judgments.”
Stohlman was first elected to the council’s District 2 seat in 2007. That was Holcombe’s seat, but she left to deal with health issues.
Two years later, though, Stohlman lost his seat to Steve Diehl.
But he returned in 2011, when he ousted Martin to win an at-large seat.
Martin doesn’t hold a grudge, and he said he wishes Stohlman well as mayor.
“Give him time to do his work and judge him on the work he does,” Martin said. “He has a clean slate now. He has an opportunity to prove to the people that you are the best person for the position.”
Tensions among the board
Tensions among council members began years ago.
Diehl and Holcombe started the grassroots group Morrisville Action, which helped oust Stohlman and two other council members in 2009. That year, Holcombe was elected mayor.
Morrisville Action opposed the approval of the 100-acre mixed-use shopping center Park West Village because of traffic concerns. The group was also against a proposed 19 percent tax hike.
Once Stohlman won a seat on the board again in 2011, tensions ran high between him and Holcombe. For two years, they engaged in a power struggle on a slew of issues, including Northwest Park, a firearms ordinance and town finances.
“The balance was upset at that point,” Stohlman said. “I think prior to that, for two years everybody did what the mayor wanted.”
Tensions peaked during this fall’s election season, when Stohlman won the mayor’s spot by 88 votes.
Now, moving forward, Stohlman said he hopes to unify the council.
“I think everyone is looking forward to a new beginning,” he said. “I just found in managing people you get more with cooperation, a good sense of humor and getting everyone involved.”
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