There’s a new commissioner in town.
Erv Portman will be sworn into the District 4 seat of the Wake County Commission during its meeting Tuesday. Portman, formerly a Cary town councilor, succeeds Stan Norwalk, who resigned May 2.
Portman is president of WestStar Precision Inc., a company that manufactures medical and aerospace components. The Wisconsin native moved to Cary in 2002. Although he has served on various planning and zoning boards, he never considered running for office until he was appointed to the Cary Town Council in 2007.
The Wake County Democratic Party appointed Portman to the seat to serve for the remained of Norwalk’s term.
But now that he’s here, he’s excited about the chance to work on the bigger picture. County Commissioners, like every elected official, are responsible for tax dollars and must spend money wisely, he said.
During the past month, Portman watched commissioners struggle with tough decisions to balance the 2011-12 budget. Health and Human Services programs were cut, including funding for many nonprofits.
Portman said while those services are important, it’s time to reexamine them in conjunction with the county priorities. He suggests analyzing the services, what they offer and making sure there is no redundancy.
“As a newcomer looking at it, one of the things I noticed and saw is that there are a lot of different groups working in similar initiatives sand similar issues,” he said. “I would be interested in knowing whether that collage of services is the most effective way to address each of those issues. I don’t know whether it is or isn’t. That’s one of the things I’d like to look at.”
Matching how tax dollars are spent with the values of the community is always a balancing act, he said, but one thing he heard repeatedly was the need for more education funding.
“Citizens have high expectations of our ability to educate the next generation and to provide the support we need to make sure that happens,” he said.
Portman has a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional studies and has served on Cary and Oshkosh, Wisc. planning boards. Growth is a topic he is eager to tackle.
“The role on the commission is to ensure that as we look as issues dealing with growth that we do it in a way that is respectful to the environment,” he said.
Transit will play a large role in growth, he said, and the true work lies in convincing Wake residents, who are accustomed to an auto-centric lifestyle.
“I have seen compelling information that makes it clear to me that 20 and 30 years into the future we will not be successful building enough concrete to solve a problem,” he said. “Convincing [residents] to take the first steps and make that investment in the future will be a challenge.”
Portman believes cost comparisons will show a large upfront expense with mass transit, but long-term success. Such sea change ideas are not new to the Triangle, he said, remarking on the construction of Research Triangle Park and Lake Jordan decades ago.
“[Those were] incredibly controversial but paid huge dividends,” he said. “The transit issue is at that level. It will be as controversial or more so. It will require us to be clear and articulate in how we present that story to the community to see whether the community will support it.”
As per protocol, Portman was nominated for the seat by the party of the outgoing commission member, in this case the Wake County Democratic Party. Party Chair Mack Paul said Portman’s prior experience provided party members’ with a comfort that he would do well as commissioner.
In addition, Paul said, Portman’s strong character contributed to the party members’ selection.
“He’s just a very thoughtful person who listens to all sides and makes the best decision he can and is motivated by the right reasons,” he said. “His life isn’t consumed by moving up the political ladder. That allows him to make the best decisions.”
Norwalk, who stepped down for health reasons, also approved of Portman, who has served as a member of the Mayors’ Task Force on Student Assignment and the Wake County Public Schools Healthy Schools Task Force.
“Stan was passionate about public education,” Paul said. “He felt like Erv would be a strong advocate for public education, which made it easier for Stan to make the decision and feel good about it.”
On his election web site for the Cary Town Council, Portman pronounced the need for non-partisan discussions in local government. He said the same is true for the Commission.
“I don’t think it’s a good place for partisan politics, but that decision’s been made. It is partisan. And I’ll have to adapt myself,” he said.
He said generally, people have about a 90 percent agreement on major issues, and as long as the focus remains on what they share, there won’t be any problems.
“Everyone is going to be concerned about quality of education, the environment, creating jobs,” he said. “The more we put on our partisan collars, the more we break down our effectiveness together of working across lines and most of our heavy work needs to be done across lines.”
And, if he’s effective, he plans to run again when his appointed term ends next year.
“Now that I have been appointed I feel a responsibility to run for the office in the next election,” he said. “If I determine a year from now that I am not having any influence or any effect — that would probably be the only reason I would not run.”
“I am serving in the community because I think it’s important,” he said. “But I serve at the pleasure of the community and I do that as long as the community wants me to.”