LAURINBURG — After presiding over what was likely his final Laurinburg City Council meeting as mayor on Tuesday night, Tommy Parker looked back on 13 years helping to shape the policies and progress of his hometown.
Parker served as a city council member for nine years before being elected mayor in 2011, midway through his third term. He ran for re-election this year, but was defeated by Matthew Block amidst controversy over city electric rates and council’s consideration of plans for a new city hall and police station. Block’s swearing-in is expected in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, the city council recognized Parker’s years of service to the city.
“He was a mayor and council member who loved Laurinburg and was totally dedicated to this community and making it better,” mayor pro tempore Mary Jo Adams read from a plaque she presented to the outgoing mayor. “He was the epitome of a true public servant.”
Seasoned by his years as a council member, Parker had no visions when he ran for mayor of solving all the city’s woes overnight. But his belief in “incremental, slow progress” came true with a spruced-up downtown area, the demolition of scores of dilapidated buildings, and above all a $100-million expansion of FCC of NC, which the city has accommodated by expanding its limits and its utilities infrastructure to supply hundreds of thousands of water daily for the plant’s operations.
“I just thought we ought to stay the course and do the best we could do and keep our tax rate as low as we could,” he said. “In my interpretation, it’s been a time of slow growth in the whole country and you just try to out-grow everybody else.”
Also during Parker’s tenure as mayor, council replaced the city manager, in 2013 hiring Charles Nichols, a city native who was then working as Scotland County’s finance officer.
“That was just something that you have to go through,” Parker recalled. It got emotional for everybody involved, but it was a necessary thing that we had to do. We bettered ourselves by far with the approach we have now… his values and those of the city council and citizens were aligned, and the town started moving forward cohesively. Before that it was kind of a roller coaster ride.”
Nichols’ hire set something of a precedent for the city, which proceeded to hire several other local, relatively young candidates for top staff positions.
“We have a good blend of veterans and fresh minds and that’s what makes us move forward. They work together nicely and when you bring in young people you get a different perspective.”
Earlier this year, council met with resistance from the city’s electricity customers when it elected to pass on only half of the savings realized in its electricity acquisition cost from ElectriCities in order to establish a reserve of funds for improvements in the city’s electric delivery system. But Parker maintained that, in response time and customer service, including an expanded grace period before utility cutoff in the event of unpaid bills, the city offers a better value than private energy companies.
“I think when people came out we tried to help and adjust policies to work for the public’s benefit as much as we could,” he said.
“The utility situation was awkward — but it’s been more user-friendly than it’s ever been. For instance you would probably never get the cooperation that you get from the city from Duke Energy. It’s just remarkable what the city does for its customers. A lot of that was staff-inspired, but council has to listen to the staff and give them the freedom to come up with ideas that work for everybody.”
Having learned early on that no man, when it comes to effective leadership, is an island, as mayor Parker embraced his role in helping the city council run as smoothly and professionally as possible.
“While some people like drama, I’d rather have cohesiveness and I think we achieved that,” he said. “It’s not that we haven’t had our differences, but we’ve been able to move forward together. The idea was to add some structure and decorum to the way that things are run.
“You’re a lot better off working together and in concert than you are trying to do things by yourself. You really can’t do anything alone; you have to have people who are willing to help.”
At present, Parker’s plans involve cheering the city on from the sidelines rather than re-entering the political arena.
“I’ve enjoyed every council I have been on and worked with, but this one has great talent and diversity and has the ability to do what it takes to move forward,” he said. “I’m confident that there are people in place who will do a good job.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.