On Being A County Commissioner

By: Ted G. Godwin, Chairman
Johnston County Board of Commissioner

Someone not famous once said, “Often they that govern are simply those who show up”. Being a county commissioner was certainly not one of the visions of my youth. I never considered running for office until 2008 when, within a 24-hour time span, two very prominent business people independently suggested I run for county commissioner.  With my wife’s and employer’s blessing I filed and was soundly defeated in the party primary. After getting more involved, I run unopposed in 2012 and was elected to my first term. This month I was elected to my third term with almost 65% 0f the vote. During the campaign season, I have been asked about my political philosophy. It can be summed up in one word….FREEDOM.

I believe in Freedom. My old college Webster’s dictionary has many definitions for the word. My favorite is “…the power or condition of acting without compulsion”. I see the role of government as necessary to accomplish, collectively, what a man can’t do individually. Examples are basic infrastructure (roads, schools, public safety) and those things necessary for multiple people to live together peaceably. Therein is the rub…..when does your freedom become hurtful to mine and/or my quality of life? That question is what makes being a county commissioner challenging. Every time a regulation is put in place, a little freedom is lost. Every time a new neighbor builds next door, possibilities for friction comes into play. He wants to shoot his new firearm. You want to enjoy your peace and quiet. It begs for that fine balance of coexistence.

I once felt intimidated about the whole idea of being in a leadership position in county government. How does one prepare for that role? What qualifies me, or you, to take on that task? Yeah, I guess I’ve had a fair amount of experience. In my youth I was president of my high school FFA chapter (that was a big deal in 1965) and I was a class officer in high school. I’ve been president of the Chamber, president of the Tourism Authority Board, president of civic clubs, president of the Education Foundation Board, served on Tax Department E&R Board, Hospital board and Library Trustee. All of those things may have prepared me to feel comfortable in standing and speaking to people, but it doesn’t  tell me when it’s right and proper to grant someone’s request for a land use zoning change. Do you get the freedom to do what you want to do on your own land? Or does your neighbor get the right to keep his/her little part of the world unchanged?

Many people have given the board of commissioners a lot of grief on social media about not reigning in our exploding residential growth. Some have even accused the board of pandering to the developers and insinuating taking massive campaign donations in return. I take it in stride, criticism is part of the gig. But when my integrity is impugned, I take it personally. Why do we do it? Why do we subject ourselves to Monday morning quarterbacking?  I believe most everyone in our county thinks they have good ideas for running the county, and they’re probably right. The men and women who have served on this board are those with enough confidence in their own ability to make sound decisions and they just showed up. My Daddy taught me that I was no better than anyone else, but he also taught me to never be satisfied with “average”. And he taught me that every man deserved fairness and civility. When someone says all we (commissioners) want to see is growth and care little about the effects, they are about as wrong as they can be.

I grew up and worked hard on a dirt-road tobacco farm here in Johnston County. I’d love to see those open spaces I cherished as a boy continue to exist. But when the neighboring farmer is facing retirement and he decides to sell his land, he can sell to another farmer (likely his preference) or he can sell to someone who has an interest in dividing the land into home lots. The market dynamics will dictate who buys the farm. Is it the government’s role to tell that farmer how his land must exists? How his land can be used? The county has established land use ordinances to govern and guide how these things should unfold. As time and circumstances evolve, those ordinances have to be updated from time to time. Our board recently enacted some meaningful changes to limit density in rural subdivisions. The goal is to steer higher density growth to the towns and retain open space as much as possible. My personal feeling was that we didn’t change the density enough, but the fact that we have undertaken a comprehensive land use study to guide our growth policies more professionally probably made this interim step appropriate. The point is, we’re all very concerned about problems associated with residential growth. But we’re also concerned that we never lose sight of our commitment to personal property rights and individual freedoms.

The best way to deal with managing growth doesn’t have an easy answer. It’s like asking five people who has the best football team. You’re likely to get five different answers and good reasons why each is valid. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re looking hard for the best tact forward. If our citizens don’t agree with how we approach it, then let us know. We have open meetings and no one has to sign up ahead of time to be heard. But please don’t stoop to accusations of dishonesty, apathy or willful disregard. That’s simply not how this board operates.

Hey, just show up. Maybe you can have a hand on the tiller of this vessel we call JoCo and help steer it in the right direction. A direction that we can all be satisfied with and look to our past with pride and our future with hope.