The 2019 race for Mayor of Wrightsville Beach race pits an experienced member of the board of alderman who has been preparing for the role against a political newcomer who wants to press the town on issues of fairness, transparency, hospitality and accessibility that he says hurt its local reputation.
While attorney Greg Buscemi acknowledges he doesn’t have as much experience, he said he wanted there to be at least one challenger to Darryl Mills, who has been on the board for eight years and was elected by the board as mayor pro tem, to fulfill mayoral duties if called upon.
“I was really hoping that someone else would run,” Buscemi said, noting he paid a $10 fee to file for the election on the last day before registration ended. “If you take public office, there should be at least one vote cast in your favor.”
Arguing that local leaders should make more effort to represent tourists as well as locals, as well as be more transparent, Buscemi said as mayor he wanted to take a fresh look at issues he said would make the beach more accommodating, including reconsidering the parking rate.
Mills said his focus for the town was to continue improving its infrastructure and boosting its savings for beach sand funding and hurricane preparedness.
One of the accomplishments that Mills touted during his tenure on the board of aldermen was the building of a sizeable reserve fund, some of which could be used to provide a local match for beach renourishment funding.
With $10 million in the general fund, about $5 million so far is set aside for a “sand fund” for beach renourishment.
“We’ve been able to do that without raising our town’s tax rates,” Mills said. “We all feel good about that.”
Mills, a lawyer operating a private practice, was first elected to the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen in 2011 and re-elected in 2015. If he wins the mayoral race, he will serve a two-year term. Prior to his election as an alderman, Mills served on the town’s planning board. He is also a member of the executive board of the Cape Fear Boy Scouts and a member of the board of directors for Cape Fear Hospice.
For his part, Buscemi has never been elected to local office, but said he was ready to bring a fresh viewpoint on several local issues.
Buscemi said he had some concerns about how the town is operated, noting that there could be efforts to make the beach more accomodating. Parking rates are one issue he’d like to see reconsidered as mayor. He said he wanted the town to look into other options, which could include looking at other public transit options for the beach..
“I don’t want to take away a big source of revenue, but we also have one of the lowest property rate taxes,” he said. “There has to be more of a balance.”
Mills said his primary goal as mayor would be to continue progress on upgrading the town’s outdated water and sewer system, as well as keeping streets paved and in good condition.
“The water and sewer lines had basically been ignored, and the repaving of streets was happening here and there. The town needed to focus on that,” Mills said. “It’s an ambitious undertaking, but we’ve been making good progress.”
With federal funding for beach renourishment threatened in upcoming budget cycles, Mills said that forging good relationships with federal and state elected officials was of “critical importance.”
“We’ve got time left, but we’re running up against the spending limit,” Mills said. “We could get one more, but it’s not guaranteed.”
Buscemi said it was also worth examining whether fairness has been considered in some local decision making, particularly in rezoning.
“It seems like some were awarded certain benefits were others were shut out of the process,” said Buscemi, specifically citing town objections to the downtown nightclub Red Dogs liquor license.
Buscemi also raised a 2015 incident where Mills was accused of using a racial slur towards a local bartender, saying the incident could serve to damage the reputation of the town.
The Lumina News tried to contact both the restaurant owner and the woman who made the accusation in 2015. Neither replied. Buscemi said he also reached out the woman, who hasn’t replied to him either. However, Buscemi said there should be some recognition of the incident in the campaign and that it shouldn’t be “swept under the rug.”
Mills described the incident as one he regretted, adding that he had tried to make amends. He said he had had a personal rapport with the bartender at the restaurant, where he often joked with her, but offended her on that instance. Mills said he apologized publicly and personally to the woman.
Mills added that he didn’t believe the incident hurt the beach or its reputation and that town voters showed they believed he had responded appropriately by re-electing him in November 2015, just months after the April incident.
Buscemi said he was concerned about how the incident in Mills past could create a “sense of distrust from the public” about the town. He said the incident fed into the perception that the town was run by a group of insiders.
“Everyone that comes to this town deserves to feel welcome and to know that the town’s leaders are going to listen to you and not just put their own priorities ahead of yours,” Buscemi said.
Mills objected to the idea that there was any unfairness in the town, including towards any specific businesses or individuals.
Mills said the legal cases against Red Dog had to do with issues of alcohol enforcement legality that couldn’t be ignored.
“We have to enforce our ordinances and our procedures. To twist as we’re out to get Red Dogs, that’s just wrong,” Mills said. “We wouldn’t be doing our job properly if we just ignored those things.”
Mills further went on to support the town’s current parking rate of $3 an hour and $17 a day, which he voted for before the start of the season.
“I think the residents are okay with it,” Mills said.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.