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SUNSET BEACH — Political change is in the ocean air following the Nov. 5 municipal elections, and Sunset Beach’s newly elected mayor is gearing up for the transition.
Former town councilman and local businessman Ron Watts, elected last week in an unopposed bid for mayor, is hopeful the election will help put the town on a more even keel following last week’s hotly contested races for three town council seats.
The outcome led to wins for incumbents Carol Scott and Lou De Vita and newcomer Terry Johnson and losses for current Mayor Richard Cerrato, newcomer Karla Squier and incumbent Karen Joseph.
“I don’t think either side completely won,” said Watts, citing mixed results that are “probably a good thing for all of us. But time will tell on that.
“Everyone has talked a good game of wanting to get civil again, and I guess one of my goals would be to make that happen — maybe make the meetings a little boring and get back to business,” Watts, 55, said during an interview Monday at his Sunset Properties vacation rental office on the Sunset Beach island.
“It’s a good time for us,” added Watts, citing town council’s recent hiring of new town administrator Susan Parker, a former town manager for six-and-a-half years for the town of Crested Butte, Colo., who is scheduled to begin new duties with Sunset Beach on Dec. 9.
“I haven’t met her yet, but she sounds good,” Watts said.
In keeping with the voting trend in recent years, Watts said it’s also not a surprise all of the town council incumbents up for re-election didn’t win this year.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “I think this is one of the communities that people want to be involved with. In several of our neighboring communities, nobody runs unless there’s an opening, and that’s kind of disappointing.”
Commenting on this year’s heated races and the divisiveness that has permeated both in and outside town council chambers, Watts said, “I think emotions have gotten in the way. Nobody has a clean slate on this, including the audience at these meetings. They’ve thrown a few fire bombs at everybody.”
Outgoing Mayor Richard Cerrato “feels like he’s been abused for the last couple of years,” Watts said. “A couple of the council candidates feel like they’ve been abused for the last couple of years. If we can just take the emotions out of it and get back to business, I think we’ll be fine.”
Watts has a couple of ideas about things he hopes to address as mayor. Most immediately, he wants to sit down and meet individually with council members, including discussing the basics of civility, getting town meetings under control, and communication.
“It was amazing to me at election day, listening to people that didn’t have the clear story on different topics,” he said. “That’s not pointing at anybody. We just do a lousy job telling people what’s going on. We’ve got to get better at that going forward.”
It’s his understanding the new town administrator has good ideas as well.
“If we just keeping knocking away at them, it’ll get better,” he said.
The Atlanta native and his family moved to Sunset Beach in 1997. He and his wife, Adrienne, already had a beach house on the island before deciding to move here permanently and buy their own business. They currently are business partners with Pat and Ginny Wolfe.
Watts previously lived in the Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C., area before moving to North Carolina.
The eventual lure to Brunswick County was a natural — “the beach,” Watts said. “I think that’s what draws everybody.”
At the time, it was an easy drive from Fayetteville, where Watts previously worked as marketing director for The Fayetteville Observer.
As for the upcoming mayoral transition, Watts said Cerrato has been very good with him since Cerrato was giving up the seat to run for town council.
“I think the problem for Rich is he burned bridges through the years, and he just could not overcome that the last couple of years,” Watts said. “We’ve kidded several times that many of his ideas were and are good. If they came from a different messenger, the council probably would have taken them more seriously.”
There are also things the two disagree on, such as the town’s budgetary reserve. Current town administrator Gary Parker, who will retire from the town in January, has done a good job creating a long-term budgeting plan, including capital improvements, Watts said.
“We were saving money as a community to pay for a lot of these projects going on,” he said. “The problem is we probably saved too much, and so we jumped into a couple of unplanned projects. But the money is there.”
He added, “I do suspect that every other town in the state would love to be in our financial shape.”
While Cerrato has been controversial, “give him some credit for the (election) turnout,” Watts said. “We were 40 to 45 percent turnout while everybody else was in the low 20s for the most part. Some of that was because there weren’t a whole lot of races.
“(Cerrato) likes to call himself a watchdog, and that’s good,” Watts said. “Every community can use one of those.”
Despite his loss, Cerrato said this week he is pleased the town has a new council member, Johnson.
Cerrato also hopes for a less bumpy road than he says he has had for the past two years.
He said he will still publish his “Taxpayers Digest” and attend meetings.
Once he’s sworn in, Watts said he’ll wield the mayor’s gavel, only “if I have to. Hopefully, I don’t have to use it with anybody.”
Laura Lewis is a reporter for The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.