Southern Shores Council hopefuls vie for votes at LWV candidate forum

By on October 6, 2023

Candidates, left to right: Mark Batenic, Matthew Neal, Robert E. Neilson, Mike Guarracino.

With four candidates vying for three open positions on the Southern Shores Town Council, the Dare County League of Women Voters (LWV) kicked off a series of candidate forums on Monday, Oct. 2.  The forums are designed to highlight candidate positions on issues of concern to the voters in their town.

The Southern Shores candidates included incumbents Matt Neal and Mark Batenic and first-time candidates Robert E. Neilson and Mike Guarracino. Councilman Leo Holland is not running for reelection.

Guarracino, in his opening remarks, referenced a career that included serving in the U.S. Navy and working in a number of positions in the federal government in Washington. To him, the nonpartisan nature of the Southern Shores Town Council is particularly important. “I think a nonpartisan board for council…is an excellent thing. You don’t want to get all muddy and bloody like you see in politics a lot,” he said.

The opening remarks highlighted what the candidates hoped to focus on if elected.

Neilson discussed a statement he had crafted for his candidacy. “Southern Shores is quintessentially a community-minded, single-family residential community,” he said. “That eleven-word statement is the anchoring statement for my campaign.”

Incumbent Neal pointed to the work the Town Council has done and his role as Mayor Pro Tem. “Council leads through the funding priorities…We’ve provided strong leadership on that front,” he said. “We revamped and added funding to our capital improvement plan to tackle our thirty-seven miles of roads…We’ve added significant cost of living adjustments to our pay scale for all town employees, enabling us to recruit and retain the best in their county.”

Batenic pointed to the tradition of volunteerism in the town that has made it such a great place to live. “I think if we can harness that power, everybody that shares volunteerism, I think this can be the most dynamic place,” he said.

Asked why they were running in this election, candidates gave a variety or answers.

Neal pointed to unfinished tasks, including creating a new land use plan. “I feel like there’s still some stuff that we haven’t quite finished…We started updating the land use plan that still hasn’t been adopted. I would like to fulfill that and we’re just months away from achieving that goal,” he said.

Batenic referenced the vision that David Stick, the founder of Southern Shores, had for the town adding that it is important “that the decisions we make follow that vision to a degree, but also are modern.  And by modern, I mean up to date.”

For Neilson his ability to plan and look at the future is a key asset. “I can bring to the council, a whole different dimension of policy analysis…to anticipate the intended result and also the unintended result,” he said, noting that was particularly important as the state attempts to impose mandates on towns.

“The state is really trying to take a lot of power away from local decision makers here. And I think as a community, we have to watch out for that,” he said.

Calling attention to his years of experience in government, Guarracino said that “I’ve been in both situations where we mandated down how you do stuff, and I’ve been on the other side where it’s been mandated down to us—and sometimes you have to just kind of figure out how to do that.”

There was relatively little disagreement on policy issues among the candidates. That was especially true when asked about the provision in the state budget that had just passed that would restrict the Dare County municipalities’ ability to regulate affordable or workforce housing funded with state money.

“It is very scary. And it’s a sledgehammer to fix the problem,” Neal said. “It has a method of shortchanging any potential valid dialogue that could be had with all parties because it’s offensive…”

Batenic was equally as strong in his statement. “We have to figure out how to work around [this] and…communities in Dare County are not happy. We’re talking. I don’t know what we’re going to do. But we can’t let that happen because it’s like a bulldozer. They’re taking away our ability to have a great community,” he said.

Neilson began his answer by asking if people in the audience remember Sgt. Schultz from the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Schultz would famously answer, “I know nothing,” when asked about any issue of substance.

What Neilson was referring to were statements from Dare County officials and elected state representatives that they did not have knowledge of, nor any role in inserting that affordable housing provision into the state budget.

“This is the opposite of devolution, meaning getting decision making authority back to the local government,” he went on to say. “This is the centralization of power. And guess what? Dare County been singled out.”

A question was posed about the proposed SAGA development at the foot of the Wright Memorial Bridge, but candidates indicated they could not answer the question at this point in time because the project would probably come before the council in a quasi-judicial hearing.

Candidates were also asked to address summer traffic in Southern Shores.

“This is definitely an oldie but goodie,” Neal said. “I remember being here four years ago, thinking I was going to hard charge into it and fix the problem. And after experimenting for three years, I’m not sure that we got too far.”

The answers highlighted how intractable the issue was with no clear solution. Guarracino and Neilson felt Duck with its pedestrian friendly commercial district was, as Neilson said, “the choke point.” He added that “Duck doesn’t wanna play nice with us.”

Ultimately though, none of the candidates saw a clear answer, with Batenic pointing to the Mid Currituck Bridge as the best hope for alleviating traffic.

“Hopefully that bridge will be built in our lifetime,” he said.

Visit League of Women Voters of Dare County website to watch Dare County Candidate Forums.

SEE ALSO: Housing issues are front and center at Manteo candidates’ forum

Candidates make their case at Kitty Hawk forum

Affordable housing takes center stage at KDH candidate forum


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  • ed

    I will vote for the ones who say, “OK, Ed was right, that stupid beach nourishment ruined the surfing and didn’t provide a single thing we didn’t already have. It was a massive waste of money, and millions (dozens) of local town surfers are justifiably pissed about how it ruined all our nice sandbars. We were wrong to pump that nasty black tar-sand onto our clean beach. It won’t ever happen again.”

    Friday, Oct 6 @ 3:02 pm
  • Sean Mulligan

    Beach nourishment not only ruined the surfing but also the fishing.I moved here to do both and I don’t appreciate having to drive South to pursue both.Move the houses that are threatened or tear them down is the long term solution and let the dunes build where nature wants them to build.It’s tough medicine but the only longterm solution not more beach nourishment.If you took that money and paid the school teachers you would not have to build affordable housing.

    Saturday, Oct 7 @ 6:29 am
  • Dan

    Ed is correct. The beach nourishment destroyed the sandbars for surfing and has hurt fishing also, no more sand fleas for a few years. Beach nourishment is just welfare for rich out of town second home owners. There should be some risk with owning an oceanfront home. The beach might move around a little bit but it won’t go away. Nourishment is pointless. The town didn’t even consult the scientists at the Duck Research Pier, that’s crazy. They know more about our beach than anyone, including these nourishment companies preying on small towns.

    Saturday, Oct 7 @ 7:25 am