Familiar opponents meet again in race to represent District 5 as Meck County commissioner

CHARLOTTE — After facing off once before, two candidates that have served on the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners are opposite each other on the ballot again.

Incumbent Democratic commissioner Laura Meier is running for reelection to District 5, the south Charlotte area. She’s facing a familiar face -- Republican Matthew Ridenhour, who held the seat for six years. Meier beat Ridenhour by a little more than 2,500 votes in 2020.

Both Meier and Ridenhour told The Political Beat’s Joe Bruno they have more work to do in the position.

“I am not done with the work I am doing with the county,” Meier said. “Two years is a learning curve for sure and now I am ready to hit the ground running. I think I’ve done a really good job in my first term and I am just not done, I am ready to keep going.”

“I feel like there is still some good work I want to do for the community. Looking where we have gone over the past few years, I keep hearing dissatisfaction from folks -- and not just GOP folks either,” Ridenhour said. “I am getting a sense from folks that they are frustrated with the direction from the county, not having trust in our elected representatives, and I see that across the spectrum from voters.

The last time the pair ran, the world was in the height of the pandemic with mandatory masks and business closures. Mecklenburg County oversaw the response. Meier feels the county handled it well, but Ridenhour thinks the county could have acted quicker.

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“I was running a campaign in the pandemic, got elected in the pandemic, and I didn’t have an in-person meeting with staff -- with my colleagues -- until six or eight months later,” Meier said. “It was really challenging for many, many reasons. But I feel like the county did what they needed to do with the information we had at the time.

“If we were to do it all over again with the information we had on masks, I would do it again. I think we saved lives. I think Gibbie Harris did a great job. I think we listened to the professionals and we did what we had to do.

“And when it was time to end the mask mandate, we did that too because we listened to the professionals. I think the county handled it well. With the pandemic back then, no one knew what was happening. I think they had a good response and I supported them.”

Ridenhour’s response:

“Much of the time, the county was making the best decision at the time with the information at hand. I will certainly give the manager credit for that, and health director,” Ridenhour said. “I think there were also times basketball nets were being cut down or public restrooms at parks were being closed and instead port-a-pottys were being put in parks for people to use. There were risk mitigation actions being taken that did not make sense.

“l also think the county was not willing to be agile and place this at the commission level. They were not willing to be agile and to adapt to a changing environment as new data came in.”

The county commission made the controversial decision to temporarily hold money from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board. County commissioners demanded an acceptable plan to improve student outcomes before $56 million was released.

The county ended up providing those funds -- and more -- to the school board. Commissioner Meier disagreed with the decision to the hold money from CMS and voted against it. Ridenhour thinks the other county commissioners made the right call.

“I think the county did make the right decision by tying money to outcomes. I think at the end of the day, the county writes half of its budget as a check to CMS and that is taxpayer money,” Ridenhour said. “There needs to be conversations about what is that money getting us. Where are those invested dollars going and what can the community expect to get out of that investment?”

“It was wrong. It was illegal. We were not permitted to do that,” Meier said. “I think some people think it was just kind of showboating and pushing the envelope as much as possible just letting them know we are watching, we want accountability. I don’t think we needed to do that. I think if we had better communication with the school board we never would have had to do that. It would have been more communication and more collaboration, which I think everyone wants to see us do. And if we were collaborating, we wouldn’t have had to threaten things like that.

One of the topics in the race is what should be done to Park Road Park. Bruno conducted the interviews with Ridenhour and Meier in the park, which sits in the middle of District 5 and has become an unexpected campaign issue.

Both candidates have big ideas to improve the park, and they say it is under-utilized and not reaching its potential.

“I talk a lot about Park Road Park because for me, Park Road Park is so reflective of the park system in general and what it could be in Mecklenburg County,” Ridenhour said. “We are consistently ranking low in terms of our public ranking of parks and the size of parks and so forth. For me, Park Road Park in SouthPark and the heart of District 5 is really illustrating the problem.

“The perfect example is, if you look over my shoulder you will see the surface of the pond of Park Road Park and how it is covered in algae right now. Why is that park covered in blue-green algae? Well it hasn’t been dredged in years. One of the fountain bubblers used to aerate the pond is not working right now and, you know, you look around the park and you see bare spots in grass. You see an absolute lack of flora, and plants and pollinators and so forth.

“There is so much that can be done in Park Road Park and it is just not a priority. Why does our park have to have green algae covering it? Why does our park have lights over the parkway that are out? Why does our park have patches of grass? Our district rep should be advocating for improvements to Park Road Park and we are not seeing it.”

Meier echoed the same.

“I have been pushing for dredging of the lake. Not only Park Road Park but also Freedom Park and other lakes in the county because of the blue-green algae situation,” Meier said. “They are looking into that. It is part of the budget, I am very excited. There is also going to be a new shelter, new restrooms for Park Road Park. I am excited about that, that’s in the budget.

“This park is probably under-utilized and I know there are plans around the lake to do music acts. It is not a great place, I was told, for arts festivals, but there are so many other ways we can use it. The county is well aware and they are looking into it.

“I am a big fan of Park Road Park. It has so much potential. It seems kind of sectioned. The tennis courts are on one side of the street. The park is on the other side. There is a big road leading to the baseball field. I am a baseball mom; I think it is a big deal and not a lot of people know about it.”

Both candidates say they have deep respect for each other. Meier says spending priorities separate her from Ridenhour.

“He is more libertarian-minded and he is less government and as a county, we oversee the budget,” Meier said. “And I do think we should give more money to the arts and I do think we should give more money to education. We’ve got to protect public education, that’s what we do. I think things like that differentiate us.”

She says her passion for making a difference is driving her to run.

“Making a difference is what I am driven by and why I ran for office in the first place. I think I am still making a difference, I think I made a difference and I want to keep doing it.”

Ridenhour says the all-Democrat county commission would benefit from at least one Republican voice.

“You don’t have to have a majority of votes in order to change the conversation, in order to be able to advocate for your district effectively. You don’t have to have a majority of votes,” Ridenhour said. “So much of the work comes from being able to reach across the aisle, talk to another county commissioner, have sometimes a contentious debate on a subject.”

After hearing from a voter, he has an unusual way of describing himself and his candidacy.

“I had a Democrat reach out to me and say, ‘You have my support, Matthew, because I just want normal. I just want normal again. I look around at the county commission now and I don’t see normal,’” Ridenhour said. “‘I see chaos from the county commissioners and when you served Matthew, you were pragmatic, you were thoughtful.’ I guess I am normal. Maybe I am boring and normal. But I’ll take it.”

District 5 has slowly trended toward the Democrats.

In 2016, Rindenhour beat Marc Friedland by 5%. Two years later, Democrat Susan Harden bested Ridenhour by 1.5%. Most recently, Meier won the seat over Ridenhour by 2.6%.

(WATCH BELOW: Mecklenburg County commissioners acknowledge hot mic comments)