SMITHFIELD — District 1, represented for more than 23 years by Councilman Charles Williams, will soon have new leadership.
Williams confirmed last week he will not seek re-election in November. Lifelong Smithfield resident Marlon Lee, a student advocate and coach at Clayton High School, has filed for the District 1 seat. As of Thursday afternoon, he had no challengers.
Lee sees himself as Williams’ successor. “Charles did great things for us,” he said while standing outside the Board of Elections office with campaign manager Crystal Roberts. “Hopefully I’ll be able to add some youth, attend more events.”
Like Williams, Lee is an outspoken advocate of East Smithfield. Most recently, his efforts led to renovations at Smith-Collins Park, which had fallen into disrepair.
Lee and his neighbors secured money for new benches, lights and other improvements to the baseball field and basketball court. Now they’re campaigning for money to renovate and open a pool that has been closed for the past five years.
Lee is the most outspoken of the neighbors, and spoke for them at council meetings. Williams said he admired that about Lee.
“He stepped forward and spoke out,” Williams said. “A lot of people in the community felt the same way he did, but they didn’t step up to the plate and say anything.”
As a councilman, Lee said, he plans to broaden his focus to all of Smithfield, hoping to play up Smithfield’s strengths to attract businesses and new residents.
“We want people to move here, and not just because we’re 30 minutes to Raleigh,” he said. Lee is a ubiquitous presence at council meetings. He quietly watches as councilmen work on everything from budget amendments to rezoning cases, and he stays behind afterward to shoot the breeze with officials and residents.
Williams, first elected to the District 1 seat in 1989, has been a fixture on the council ever since. In recent years, he has championed renovating blighted neighborhoods and alleviating flooding in his district.
Williams has always argued that the town’s predominantly black east side has been overlooked. In a short phone interview Wednesday, he didn’t back away from that.
“It’s still overlooked,” Williams said. “I thought that by getting on there and trying to get on the board it would be fixed.”
Williams said he decided to leave the council because he had grown tired of the job. He was just waiting for a qualified community member to show interest in his seat.
Williams said he had no advice for Lee; that it’s best for candidate to feel everything out for themselves. “I don’t have the answer, and I don’t think I should try to create something for him,” Williams said.
Lee described Williams as a longtime mentor. Roberts, Lee’s campaign manager and a longtime Smithfield resident, said Williams has been an important influence.
“He helped pave the way, and he has passed the baton to Mr. Lee,” she said.
Businessman enters the race
Local businessman Andy Byrd has decided to enter the District 4 race against Roger Wood.
Byrd, co-owner of a construction and storage-supply company in Clayton, identifies himself as a fiscal conservative. He is promising to scrutinize town spending more closely and look for ways to attract business to town – especially to economically-depressed West Smithfield.
“I think there’s a problem with this side of town; it’s a bunch of empty buildings,” he said. “Someone needs to look into why.”
Byrd said town regulations have hurt business development in Smithfield. He also thinks council members have given a frosty reception to companies looking to bring lower-paying jobs to Smithfield. “(I would) take a more common-sense approach,” he said. “Don’t just shoot for high-paying jobs. Be ready to take what you can get.”
Byrd is also disappointed with the emphasis the council has put on winning federal grants for local projects. Much of that money is conditional, he noted, and relying on it too much leaves the council with less control.
Byrd does see hope for the town, noting that some council members are trying to steer it in a more-conservative direction. He said his beliefs align with those of Councilmen Emery Ashley and Andy Moore. He also liked the rule, proposed by Perry Harris, to require council approval of all budget transfers above $1,000.
“That was a very good idea … especially with the recent history of raises and money being unaccounted for,” Byrd said. “I think everybody in town’s got a little more respect for the council now.”