New dose of leadership comes to center stage

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 4, 2013 

New leaders of the Beaufort County Council and the Beaufort County Board of Education can hit the ground running.

That is good news, especially in the case of the school board. The board easily could have picked a newcomer to lead a body that redistricting left with only four of 11 members having any experience at all.

New chairman Bill Evans of Lady's Island has been on the board for only two years, but his experience in local schools runs much deeper. He's a retired educator who came to Beaufort County 30 years ago to be principal at Hilton Head Island High School. He has led other high schools in the county, and served in the central office as well.

Also on Wednesday, County Council unanimously elected Paul Sommerville of Lady's Island as its new chairman. He had been vice chairman and was filling in as chairman following his predecessor's move into the state legislature.

Sommerville was first elected to the council in 2006, but brings a lifetime of experience to the job. He is a native of Beaufort, a member of the Christensen family that has been influential in the business and civic affairs of Beaufort for more than 150 years. His great-grandmother was Abbie Holmes Christensen, a remarkable woman whose contributions are chronicled in the book "Cultivating a New South." As a teenager, Sommerville performed in water-skiing acts for the Beaufort Water Festival with his grandfather, Arthur Christensen, a prominent land surveyor with a degree from MIT.

Both chairmen need to hit the ground running because they must guide their boards through tricky waters ahead.

County Council will have to deal with the reappraisal of property for taxing purposes during a depressed real estate market. Former chairman Weston Newton warned: "Values are down and current projections indicate a countywide decrease from $45 billion to $33 billion (in appraised market value). Services will need to be reduced or some folks will have to pay more on lower values."

Sommerville will bring to this process a healthy appreciation for clean waterways, which he has enjoyed all his life, and which he believes will be our greatest legacy to future generations. A down market is the time to redouble environmental protection, not weaken it.

Sommerville initially ran for office with two primary planks in his platform: Foster better relations with municipalities and the school board; and make sure development pays for itself. He will try to do that with skills from a career as a labor negotiator after earning a degree in business from Duke University. He's in a good position to see that both those platform planks bear fruit, which, in turn, would benefit the full community.

Evans must lead a board full of strangers through the selection of a new superintendent. He said Wednesday that is job number one. He also wants to open the board up to greater discussion and involvement in issues by establishing committees to focus on key areas of responsibility. He said he wants the board to govern as well as oversee the district, expressing dissatisfaction in how some personnel issues have been handled.

New leaders bring new opportunity. But they are not autocrats and they are not administrators. We cannot expect them to be miracle workers. But we do expect them to be champions of open government. And we expect them not to tolerate boards that argue among themselves. Too much work needs to be done for them to pull against each other.

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