by Frank DeLoache

CORNELIUS – Here’s the short version: The high-end Peninsula Community wants to add high-end, decorative street or pedestrian lights to improve safety along Jetton Road, and the residents want the town to share the cost of the more expensive lighting.

While willing to discuss it, a majority of Cornelius commissioners have concerns that helping pay for more expensive lighting will bring an avalanche of requests from other communities. Even if they agreed to some cost-sharing arrangements, town officials, expecting another tough budget year, say the lighting request might have to wait its turn on the priority list, which could take several years.

But wattage of the street-or-sidewalk lighting can’t compare with the glare of hundreds of emails and hot words that have shot between members of the town board and the Peninsula Property Owners Association since early March.

Some commissioners feel Peninsula officials have tried to throw their weight around. For instance, Jim Duke, president of the Peninsula Property Owners Association, wrote to Bensman: “The Peninsula and Connor Quay property tax revenue to the town exceeds $2 million a year, yet there are ‘other’ priorities? Residents will be asking – just what do we get for our tax dollar? What is more important than pedestrian safety?”

Some commissioners, led by Jim Bensman, also were angry at Mayor Jeff Tarte, saying he incorrectly led Peninsula residents to believe the town was proceeding with getting the lights. Bensman, for instance, cited Tarte’s email to one Peninsula resident: “James, know we are working with Jim Duke and the PPOA to put street lights up along Jetton Road from West Catawba to John Connor Road. Stay tuned as we work to get this accomplished.”

But Peninsula residents thought Bensman and others too quickly dismissed the community’s request. Bensman went so far as to suggest that Tarte may have violated ethics rules in discussions with Peninsula residents.

In an email to Town Attorney Bill Brown, Bensman wrote, “We have a serious issue brewing here that may need your advice. Jeff has reported, inaccurately, the discussions and decision reached at our retreat. He has repeatedly encouraged Jim Duke to pursue this path, contrary to standing town policy and the potential fiscal damage to our budgets. … At the retreat the ‘straw vote’ was to uphold the town policy and Chuck (Travis) and Jeff (Tarte) agreed. This may require a legal opinion, and may be an ethics violation on the part of the mayor, who apparently is encouraging Jim (Duke) to continue.”

Tarte has largely avoided responding to barbs. On March 14, he wrote: “So everyone is clear, my understanding is the final unanimous position of the entire board and mayor was to support the town policy of not funding the decorative upgrade for any neighborhood light poles.”

In a recent email to Peninsula residents, Tarte tried to smooth the waters, “First and most importantly know there is not a final decision on the PPOA’s light request. There never was. We simply do not have all the information necessary to make a final determination on the lighting request.

“… So everyone is clear, my understanding is the final unanimous position of the entire board and mayor was to support the town policy of not funding the decorative upgrade for any neighborhood light poles. I do not believe anything different has been communicated contrary to rumors. I am confident I have been consistent in my messages and position. If I have misstated any facts please correct.”

As of Tuesday, April 5, town officials still weren’t sure what exactly the Peninsula residents really want and how much it will cost. The Peninsula Property Owners board was scheduled to meet Wednesday night, after the Herald Weekly’s deadline, to make an official request.

Town officials also find themselves in a bit of a quandary. Initially, town staff and elected officials told Peninsula residents that Duke Energy, the utility serving that part of Cornelius, would install a standard wooden pole and street light and the town would pay for future electricity costs. But residents of the upscale community would have to pay for any additional upgrades on the light poles. Estimates have put the cost at $6,500 a pole.

But after town officials and Duke, read the policy closely, they found a section saying “the town … may provide decorative pole fixtures at the town’s expense, subject to the approval of the town board.”

At the town board’s meeting Monday night, April 4, Commissioner Chuck Travis questioned if the town could devise a better process for residents to follow when making requests – “so we don’t have mis-starts and miscommunication.”

Brown, the town attorney, said residents can pursue requests several ways and called the current discussion “the price of a messy democracy.”

After the meeting, Rinker sounded a philosophical note:

“In the case of the Jetton Road street lights, well-meaning people from the Peninsula, to the staff, to the mayor and the board got ahead of ourselves. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a great deal of consternation among folks. For lack of a better term, we are calling a ‘do-over’ and making sure that all the pieces are in place before moving on.”

Click the link to read the emails yourself: HW-web only-streetlight emails-1