By Chris Berendt Staff Writer
January 22, 2014
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland will be stepping down after this term, the second commissioner in recent days to announce his intentions to leave the county board.
“After much consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election to the Sampson County Board of Commissioners,” said Strickland, whose second term as District 3 representative ends in December. “I had hoped that I would know when it is time. I know now it is time. As you get older, you want to have the fewest regrets you can have. I have witnessed people that went too long and had regrets. I didn’t want that.”
Strickland, 75, sat down with The Sampson Independent at the beginning of this week to announce his intention, reflect on his years as commissioner and look toward his last year as commissioner and what the future holds for Sampson County.
While he is walking away, Strickland said there is still much work to do — and he will be dedicated to it.
“The citizens of Sampson County can be assured that I will continue to offer the same level of commitment and service that they have been accustomed to receiving during my previous seven years,” he stressed. “I have enjoyed being on the board. It has been a very worthwhile experience for me. I’ve met a lot of people and it’s been a labor of love for me. I have not regretted the first day, the first meeting or anything about it.”
The Board of Commissioners will now have at least two new members, with longtime District 1 representative Jarvis McLamb announcing Friday he would step down after this term. Strickland and McLamb, the tenured members of the board, will have served eight years and 16 years, respectively.
While on the board, Strickland said he has sought to be a good listener and an advocate for his constituents, county employees and the county as a whole. He has attended every scheduled meeting of the board, work sessions and all, and tried to return every call and attend every event and function, he said.
“I tried, as the rest of the board has, to work in the best interests of the citizens and the county within the policy and framework that exists,” he said.
That has come with its hardships, as an economic recession has hung like a black cloud over many local governments, Sampson included, for the last six or seven years.
Strickland was first elected to the board in 2006 and then again in 2010. Things were “great” in 2006 when Strickland was elected, he said. The county was thriving, unemployment was low and the words “economic recession” were not in the local lexicon.
“Just a year or so (later), things changed,” he said. “There was talk about recession. Then, sure enough, talk was over and it was for real.”
Many of the goals Strickland had when he was elected went by the wayside in favor of seeing, along with his four fellow commissioners, that the county was taken care of.
“Many of the things I thought we could do were off the table. It was very frustrating,” said Strickland, who soon found that grant funds dried up, leaving potential projects unfunded. “But you don’t leave any stone unturned (when looking for funds), you keep on asking and you keep on trying. When you quit and give up, that’s when you lose.”
Strickland served as chairman from 2009-11 and as the board’s vice chairman for three years prior to that. In December, he was unanimously elected by the board to serve his second stint as chairman.
“Doing more with less” and “the new normal” were two phrases often used by Strickland during numerous board meetings, especially those dealing with the budget. According to many experts, the recession was over in 2009, but Strickland said that was not the case in Sampson County, which continues to feel the effects.
“The financial condition of the county became my number one concern, to work to prevent furloughs of employees, layoffs and continue to deliver the kind of services the citizens had become accustomed to,” he said. “By the board making some critical and tough decisions, we were able to do that, and work through this recession.”
The unemployment rate in Sampson has started to come back down to the level it was in 2006, at a little over 6 percent. While it is improving, there are still financial concerns in the county.
“We’re not there to the pre-recession days,” he said. “In time, by making tough decisions, we will get back there. You have to be able to balance the concerns and well-being of the citizens with the available resources.”
And do it as a unified board, said Strickland. The board might have disagreements, but working toward the greater good was the most vital part of being a commissioner.
“It’s healthy to disagree. You have to have different opinions,” he said. “That’s why you have five commissioners. No commissioner can do anything by themselves. It’s the Board of Commissioners, the ‘we’ factor.”
Necessary budget work and big-ticket items such as infrastructure and school construction often steal the limelight, but Strickland said he is pleased that the board, with the assistance of community donations, was able to develop Western District Park in Roseboro, as well as save the rest area on U.S. 421 South in the Six Runs community, with help from Sen. Brent Jackson and others.
That board now has a great deal on its plate, with courthouse security — the county is under a court mandate to address safety issues by April 1 — employee pay and benefits and the budget topping Strickland’s priority list in his last year.
“We have to look at courthouse security, concerns of employees and we’ve got to grow the tax base, by encouraging new industry and expanding existing businesses and industry,” said Strickland. “We’ve got to grow the tax base if we’re planning on going forward.”
Service to the community
Strickland said he wants to see the community thrive well into the future, evidenced by the numerous committees with which he has been involved.
Strickland’s service to his county dates back some 50 years, when he first served as a commissioner and mayor pro tem for the Town of Roseboro in the 1960s, helping to develop a town park among other initiatives.
Over the years, Strickland has served as a member of the Roseboro Area Economic Development Commission, the Sampson Community College Board of Trustees, the SCC Foundation Board of Directors, the Clinton-Sampson Airport Authority, Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center Board and the Sampson County Economic Development Commission,a s well as been involved as a local representative of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, Mid-Carolina Council of Government and Transportation Advocacy Group (TAG).
When former Board of Commissioners chairman Kermit Williamson contacted Strickland on a Sunday morning in 2006 and told him he would not run for re-election, but would support Strickland if he did, Strickland said it was not a huge leap for him.
He was not new to county government nor service to the community. He had worked with county manager Jerry Hobbs on various issues over the years and was appointed as chairman of the N.C. 24 Committee 25 years ago. He had previously expressed interest in being on the Board of Commissioners, but there was no opening.
When approached by Williamson, Strickland talked it over with his family, and they supported him.
“Having a loving family has been great for me,” he said. And they knew serving his county was close to his heart. “It was very important. I’m a very serious-minded person. I take every job seriously, and I wanted to serve and be the best representative of District 3 I could be.”
Even through the rough times of the recession, in 2010, Strickland said he still had the high level of enthusiasm and energy for what he was doing, so he sought — and successfully obtained — a second term.
Like serving his community, hard work was nothing new to Strickland, who attests to having “four different careers” in his life.
Strickland taught U.S. history, economics and sociology at Roseboro-Salemburg Middle School, ultimately becoming dean of students at Sampson Technical Institute (currently Sampson Community College). He then worked for Plastic Tubing Inc. (PTI) in Roseboro for years, before he co-founded Clinton Toyota in the late 1970s, partnering with Tommy Baker, Paul Boone and Bill Johnson before selling his share in 1990. He went back to PTI for a second stint before his eventual retirement.
“I never was held back (from county involvements) because I had to work,” Strickland said. “My grandfather, John Robert Strickland, was a justice of the peace in the Herring community.”
It definitely runs in the family, with Strickland’s brother Bobby Strickland still serving as the longtime mayor of Salemburg and son Neal Strickland currently a Clinton City Councilman.
Just as the three have never interfered in each other’s government business, Strickland said he will likewise not interfere with a new county board at the end of this year unless called upon.
“The board is a longstanding institution. We have a wonderful managerial staff, who have the best interests of the county at heart, and we are blessed with 600-plus county employees,” he said. “The work will go on. New commissioners come and go, and they will continue to do so long after I’m gone.”
Like Williamson’s call on that Sunday morning back in 2006, that led Strickland down a path of county service for the next eight years, Strickland said he will await the next opportunity.
“Doors have always opened for me,” he remarked. “If there’s some other service I am supposed to do, a door will open. In the meantime I want to complete this year and provide the best services I can to the people of Sampson County. I still have work to do.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.