CARY — Every Thursday, Ray Czarnecki met at a local bagel shop with the dozen or so members of Cary Watch, a group he started to keep tabs on Cary’s elected leaders.
He regularly picked up public records from Town Hall. He also wrote letters to the newspaper, often criticizing actions of the Cary Town Council.
Sometimes he even had lunch with a member of the council he criticized so harshly.
Czarnecki, 88, who founded Cary Watch several years ago to lobby for fiscal conservancy and a transparent government, died March 1 as he slept in his home in the Prestonwood community.
Friends remember Czarnecki as a dedicated man who loved Cary because it’s quiet, green and has plenty to do.
“He said it was the perfect bedroom community,” said Allen Turkow, a member of Cary Watch.
Cary’s quality of life is so high, Czarnecki would argue, that most residents don’t feel the need to keep an eye on what’s happening at Town Hall. That’s where his role came in.
“People don’t get involved in Cary until something goes wrong,” said Scott de Deugd, also a member of Cary Watch.
Czarnecki, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and a former engineer and college professor, set the agenda for the weekly Cary Watch meetings.
Most recently, the group focused on Cary’s investments downtown. Cary Watch is skeptical of the town’s decision to support The Mayton Inn, a hotel that plans to open on South Academy Street.
Cary applied for a $1.4 million federal loan on behalf of the hotel’s developers. Cary Watch criticized the town for not putting the loan through a bid process. They doubt the hotel will get enough business to survive on its own.
Cary Watch is small, and it doesn’t really have any money. But its members credit Czarnecki’s likability with gaining access to Cary officials.
“He was a very pleasant and good man – had a big heart,” said Councilman Don Frantz, who sometimes met with Czarnecki for lunch. “He never tried to stir up trouble. He was just doing what he believed was best for Cary.”
Cary Watch also met with Downtown Manager Ted Boyd and his predecessor, Ed Gawf, to express their concerns about The Mayton Inn. They have also gotten together with Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson.
Frantz and Robinson described their interactions with the group as cordial.
Mayor Harold Weinbrecht has responded to some of Cary Watch’s claims on his blog, saying the group’s mission “seems to be to confuse Cary citizens by spreading half-truths and misinformation.”
Cary Watch members say they’re not out to tarnish the town’s image, but to raise questions that haven’t been asked.
“Ray’s value was that he opened up conversations,” Robinson said.
Keeping them on their toes
The group hasn’t swayed elections or prevented what it considers excessive government spending.
Cary Watch members say their biggest achievement came last year in organizing push-back against Imagine Cary, a major planning effort that could shape how the town grows for decades.
Cary hired Chris Leinberger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, to speak at Imagine Cary’s kickoff event last year.
Cary Watch passed out fliers saying Leinberger was a proponent of neo-urbanism – not a neutral planning expert.
Town Council members later agreed that the summit pushed the “walkable urban” planning philosophy too hard.
Czarnecki enjoyed following town business and had a sense of humor about it. He made Cary Watch business cards for his friends.
“When asked why continue to battle, he’d chuckle and say to keep the Town Council and management on their toes,” group member Anthony Bruno said.
Czarnecki frequently attended presentations at the John Locke Foundation and even reserved a room at the Cary Senior Center to vet Town Council candidates in interviews before making an endorsement.
Though he believed in fiscal conservatism, Czarnecki was an unaffiliated voter who insisted Cary Watch is nonpartisan.
Last fall, the group endorsed Democratic challengers Deborah Pugh and Karl Thor over incumbent Republicans Jack Smith and Robinson.
‘We’re just average citizens’
Cary Watch members met on Tuesday at Bruegger’s Bagels to tell stories about Czarnecki.
They said they will miss Czarnecki at their meetings – he was funny and came up with good ideas.
“Ray wanted the town to create a consumer-friendly budget, one that’s easy for the public to understand,” Cindy Emens said.
Now, the group is determined to keep Czarnecki’s efforts going.
“We’re just average citizens trying to follow what Ray initiated,” Turkow said.
Czarnecki is survived by his wife Nancy, three sons and seven grandchildren.
Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht