Resident gadfly now new Sunset Beach mayor

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

SUNSET BEACH—Like him or not, for the past six years Richard Cerrato has been a vivid presence in this Brunswick Islands town.


It started with his first, losing election bids, first as a town council candidate in 2005, then in the 2009 mayoral race. It continues now with Cerrato’s first election victory this past Nov. 8 as the town’s new mayor, an election he finally won with nearly 60 percent of votes cast—914 votes over challenger Clinton Dunlop’s 610, according to the Brunswick County Board of Elections.

Between his election losses and ultimate win, Cerrato has garnered a reputation as the local town gadfly, frequently speaking out at town meetings and needling board members and staff for overspending, over-hiring, and not paying enough attention to what residents want.

This past November, residents and taxpayers finally got the edge by electing him mayor, Cerrato noted—or tried to note—after taking the oath of office Dec. 5.

Following his swearing-in at the monthly town meeting, Cerrato tried to say as much in a prepared statement at the end of the meeting. But newly re-appointed mayor pro tem Lou De Vita, who had been handed the gavel by Cerrato, interrupted Cerrato at the end of the three-minute time limit set for citizens to speak during public comment time and adjourned the meeting.

Not one to give up or go away easily, Cerrato says he’ll finish his speech at the next council meeting Jan. 9.

His reputation for annoying the powers-that-be doesn’t bother him, he said in a recent interview.

“I listen to people and I learn,” says Cerrato, who also publishes a “Taxpayers Digest” containing information about town expenditures he has compiled and circulated among residents for the past few years.

“I have come to realize that sometimes authority just refuses to listen, or doesn’t want to listen,” he said.

At times, he said that can get frustrating.

“But I’ve learned from that,” he said. “Now that I’m in authority, I’m going to try to set the example. I have listened and learned, and I expect others to listen and learn.”



While new Carolina Shores Mayor Walter Goodenough recently said he would serve in his new capacity as town commissioners would like him to, Cerrato said he doesn’t plan to compare himself to previous Sunset Beach Mayor Ronald Klein or “any other mayor.”

“I am going to demonstrate and practice what I think needs to be done at this particular time,” Cerrato said. “That’s what the voters mandated me to do, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I’m not going to test my limitations. I’m not going to put myself within any certain boundaries. If council wants to restrict that, that’s their choice, but hopefully council will not do that.”

On Dec. 2, Cerrato traveled with Goodenough to Raleigh to attend a mayor-council workshop organized by the North Carolina School of Government. Cerrato said he made many contacts and found the event helpful and a “tremendous resource…from soup to nuts.”

Shortly after being seated following his swearing-in Dec. 5, Cerrato wasted no time asking town staff to look at reducing expenditures 10 percent in time for town council’s budget retreat next February.

Cerrato, who previously worked as human resources director for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, is also focusing on ongoing town issues.

He cites citizens’ complaint letters about island issues, including parking and garbage. Cerrato plans to schedule a meeting with island business leaders and include them at council’s next workshop Jan. 24.

The garbage issue, he said, has not only infuriated residents, “it’s consumed a lot of our employees’ time. It’s not what government should be doing. We’re going to restart our engines, because we just have too much citizen discontent about this matter.”

He said he isn’t going to try to take charge, but rather “we’re going to discuss it with council. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. The wheel is there. I just maybe put fresh air in it.”



Last week, Cerrato says he also had a “very pleasant” meeting and conversation with Sunset Beach Town Administrator Gary Parker about town issues.

“I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think anyone has all the answers,” he said. “I seek no credit. I’m too old for that. I played that at a very young age and learned very quickly from very smart people you don’t do it that way. I believe in bottom-up management style. That’s what I’m going to try to introduce at town hall.”

Cerrato said he also conveyed his unhappiness with the process being used for future development of the 5.2-acre town park. Parker, he said, mentioned doing a straw poll.

“We didn’t get into the details of it, but he offered that as a very constructive suggestion so that all of the people in the town will have a voice,” Cerrato said. “To me, it sounded like a wonderful idea.”

Cerrato asked Parker to put it on the agenda for the next board workshop.

“Maybe that will ease a lot of the tension that has built in the town,” he said.



Cerrato is also hoping more citizens will step forward with their wealth of backgrounds and experience they bring when they choose to settle in Sunset Beach.

“This is what they conveyed to me in my door-to-door [campaign] marathon,” Cerrato said. “I would love to have that free resource.”

If he doesn’t get results during his first term in Sunset Beach office, Cerrato says he won’t seek re-election two years from now.

“I’m not just here to have a title—that’s how I’ve always worked during my professional career,” he said. “I’m not impressed by authority. I’ve tried to treat everyone the way I want to be treated, whether it’s the president or custodian. Everyone was created the same way.”

He doesn’t consider his aborted speech Dec. 5 a precedent or sample of what’s to come.

“I will apologize to the citizens at my next meeting,” Cerrato said. “I made a parliamentary error. Nobody is ever going to be treated with such disrespect. This is not a gotcha [government].”

With Cerrato at the helm, what are the chances Sunset Beach town government will be dull in coming months?

“I won’t be surprised if it isn’t,” he said. “But I won’t be disappointed if it is.”