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Wineka column: Red-shirted fight pays dividends

SALISBURY ó Just when you think government has become too big to fight, politicians have become too big for their britches and grass-roots democracy is dead, along come warriors who look a lot like you and me.
The Good Neighbors of Rowan County, a group of residents who live along the N.C. 150 spine west of Salisbury, held its last meeting Thursday night.
It was a happy occasion.
You look at the Good Neighbors and canít help thinking, this is the way things are supposed to work.
They fought something ó involuntary annexation, which they considered unjust ó and defeated the city of Salisbury. A huge win by itself.
But they didnít stop there, realizing that if they really wanted the stateís 50-year-old annexation law to change, they had to take the battle to the General Assembly in Raleigh.
In all of their fights, the residents met considerable resistance from municipal and state governments ó and their leaders ó who looked down their noses at these rednecks in red shirts who dared to question the status quo.
To say ěrednecksî is a bit harsh, but they often were treated or regarded in that fashion.
The Good Neighbors raised more than $70,000, held demonstrations, flooded public hearings, conducted monthly meetings, joined coalitions, chartered buses to Raleigh, attended legislative committee meetings, became pests to Senate leaders such as Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, sent out countless communications and forged partnerships with county commissioners and legislators who thought as they did.
On three occasions, Good Neighbors members traveled to Raleigh only to reach a committee room door and learn that the meeting had just been canceled.
In committee meetings that were held, they were sometimes called down and threatened with removal for applauding anti-annexation comments.
Meanwhile, Basnight and Rand used their influence to block any changes in the annexation law from coming to crucial votes.
Still, the red shirts remained highly visible in the halls of the Legislative Building.
ěI called them the Rowan Warriors,î says Catherine Heath, a veteran of annexation fights in Wake County and chair of the StopNCAnnexation coalition.
The beauty of the Good Neighborsí effort was that these residents were friends and neighbors of all political persuasion and ages, fighting for a shared belief that the involuntary annexation law was unfair and unconstitutional.
After 3 1/2 years, victory came in 2011 with the Republican takeover of the General Assembly and a major overhaul of North Carolinaís annexation law.
When the smoke had cleared, Basnight and Rand were out of power, Salisburyís longtime city manager was gone, and the Good Neighbors gained a little bit of satisfaction from it all.
ěIt took a huge effort,î Good Neighbors President Jeff Matthews said.
Of the $70,000-plus raised since February 2008, the group spent $23,571 ó an incredible amount of bang for the buck. Had it been running the show, government would fork over that much on a part-time consultant.
Matthews also announced Thursday night that the Good Neighborsí board decided to take its $46,500 balance ó after a $1,000 donation to Locke Fire Department ó and give the money back to the original contributors.
Those residents can be expecting a check in the mail soon.
Good Neighbors Vice President Carl Eagle asked, how many times do you come to the joyous end of a crusade ó one that accomplished what it set out to do ó ěand you get most of your money back?î
Eagle, described by Matthews as the ěbackboneî for Good Neighbors, said the long anti-annexation fight was filled with many frustrating experiences. But all along he thought most people in Raleigh, except for an entrenched leadership, were actually in the Good Neighborsí camp.
ěWe were warriors, in a sense,î he agreed.
Other tireless workers for Good Neighbors included Mark Davis, Larry Wright and Marie Howell, who along with Eagle received a standing ovation from the fire station crowd Thursday night. Randís office knew the bulldog Howell on a first-name basis, and she also served as the steering committeeís historian, documenting every move.
The group enthusiastically welcomed state Reps. Harry Warren and Fred Steen and state Sen. Andrew Brock to Thursday nightís party. The trio supported the groupís efforts at annexation reform.
ěThis was a battle that was easy to get behind,î Warren said.
Steen said the Good Neighborsí effort was a great example of the kind of democracy the country was built on, and he and Brock became prime movers for the legislation once Republicans took over this year.
ěThose red shirts in Raleigh kept showing up,î Rowan County Commissioner Carl Ford said.
County Commissioner Jim Sides said the groupís efforts kept his property from being annexed and went a long way toward saving others throughout the county and state from being brought into municipal limits.
ěThose bus trips to Raleigh were hard,î Sides said, ěbut they were worthwhile.î
The Good Neighbors also praised the work of former state Rep. Lorene Coates and former county commissioners Tina Hall and Arnold Chamberlain.
Heath said the annexation law change was historic. She praised Good Neighbors for setting an example for the rest of the state and demonstrating how to get local and state leaders working toward one cause.
ěYou carried the day at a very critical moment,î Heath told the crowd Thursday night.
Heath warned that the N.C. League of Municipalities has not taken its setback lightly. For years, municipal officials and lobbyists had been given the red carpet treatment by legislative leaders, Heath said.
They also had the arrogance, she recalled, to accuse annexation opponents of ěmeddling in the affairs of local government.î
The tide probably turned when the people fighting all the individual annexation skirmishes across the state realized that the real battleground was in Raleigh, and they banded together as one voice.
ěOnly people who knew about forced annexation were the people victimized by it,î Heath said.
Several people, Heath included, told the annexation opponents to remain vigilant, that municipal officials will be trying to change and tweak the laws to their advantages in the future.
But for now the celebratory cake and Cheerwine tastes good for these red-shirt rednecks. Theyíre still living on the edge.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.

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