CHARLES TOWN – As Mike Tolbert nears the end of four years on the Charles Town City Council, he says he’ll keep his campaign pledge to serve just one term.
“I think there are people out there who will run,” he said. “I think people’s interest in voting locally is more heightened.”
Citizens’ reaction to the Rockwool factory in Ranson has spurred interest in local government, Tolbert said.
Tolbert said he pursued a spot on the City Council believing he could be most effective only for a limited period. “I could give four really good years, which I think I have. I think I’ve infuriated enough people,” he said wryly. “Sometimes people think I’m a little too aggressive, but I have these things that I want to get done.
“I have a list, and I think if I had spread it out over 12 years. it probably wouldn’t have gotten done.”
Tolbert praised the talent and dedication of Charles Town’s city staff. But it’s the city’s elected leaders who must provide clear priorities and direction for that staff to implement the most important and necessary things, he said.
An African-American man born and raised in Charles Town, Tolbert’s late father was a prominent, lifelong civil rights leader in the county and across West Virginia.
Tolbert, a federal government employee, represents a west-end neighborhood that for decades was home mostly to African-American families. Now the ward is home to more white and Hispanic residents, a change many longtime city residents may not realize, he said.
Tolbert’s council agenda has included unglamorous, meat-and-potato issues such as laying new sidewalks and fixing crumbling ones, expanding parking and transportation options, and ensuring adequate street light coverage and fire hydrants in all neighborhoods.
“The most basic, basic infrastructure that’s needed,” he explained.
One of Tolbert’s biggest goals has been to spur the city to address vacant and dilapidated structures, for which he helped reenergize a special building code enforcement program.
With a 10-percent poverty rate in Charles Town, Tolbert said he wants to help bring more businesses not just to the city’s traditional downtown but to other areas serving less affluent residents. He also made a priority of curbing feral cats.
Tolbert said he still feels the sting of critical emails from people he likes and respects. Anyone considering running for elected public office should expect harsh criticism over their decisions, he said.
On May 23, Charles Town voters will decide on a replacement for Tolbert in Ward One and three other seats. Ann Paonessa, who has served for 12 years, and Nick Zaglifa declined to say whether they’ll seek re-election. Councilman Bob Trainor says he’ll seek another term.
During the last city election in 2016 – when Mayor Scott Rogers and councilman Todd Coyle both won first terms, without opposition – just 461 city residents voted. Charles Town is home to about 5,300 residents, according to the Jefferson County Clerk’s office and 2010 Census figures.
The recent public contentiousness over the Rockwool factory, Tolbert pointed out, pales compared with the personal criticism he received during earlier debates over the nondiscrimination ordinance.
“There are some times when you have to make decisions that are going to be very, very, very, very unpopular,” he said. “It’s painful, but public service is not supposed to be simple. It’s not supposed to be easy.”
“You have to understand going in that you may be more popular leaving,” he added. “All during your time, you have to be ready for that.”
Tolbert intends to apply his City Hall experience to advocate for an agenda of projects and issues that he considers important for Charles Town. He said he plans to remain involved.
“There are lots of projects in my ward that I want to get done that I don’t have a consensus [on the City Council] to do, and I can do more off the council,” he said.
He wants to promote the story of Charles Town’s history, from the colonial Washington family to John Brown’s raid and treason trial to Civil War battles to the era of civil rights.
He plans to help the city pursue federal money to upgrade the U.S. Post Office site, built on the land where John Brown was imprisoned during his 1859 trial. He’d also like to establish a county government complex using the Jefferson County Courthouse as a centerpiece.
“I honestly think Jefferson County is the most historical place on the earth when you understand all of the history that has gone on in this taken place,” he said. “And we don’t push it, we don’t brag about it.”