The City Council bid farewell to a valuable member on Tuesday, bestowing longtime Councilman Steve Stefanovich with the Key to the City and the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the mayor proclaiming there has never been a better city representative.
The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is among the highest honors bestowed by the North Carolina governor in recognition of service to the state and contributions to the community. The Key to the City was just the 19th bestowed by a city mayor. On Tuesday, Mayor Lew Starling and Stefanovich both choked back tears and embraced as Starling presented his friend and colleague with both.
“Never have we had a better Councilman than Steve Stefanovich,” said Starling. “Never has the city had a better friend; never have I had a better friend.”
A longtime representative of District 1, Stefanovich decided last year he would not seek reelection to a fifth term. He was sworn in December 2001, serving 16 years on the Council. Tuesday night’s regular meeting marked an emotional farewell, with newcomer Daniel Ruggles taking the District 1 spot on the board.
Starling read the Order of the Long Leaf Pine as well as offered a few words about the city key. He recalled being told long ago about the drawer in City Hall that held those keys. A cherished honor, that drawer should be opened only on rare occasions, Starling was told. He has heeded that advice.
Upon receiving the key, Stefanovich opened it and took a look. At a loss for words, he just expressed his gratitude.
“That is pretty cool,” he said. “Thank you.”
Among his many community and civic involvements over the years, Stefanovich worked with the Sampson Community College Foundation, where his Go Automotive dealership was among the sponsors of countless events, including golf tournaments, the annual phonathon and others. He has been a strong advocate for athletics, particularly at Royal Lane and within Sampson County, where he sponsored many Little League teams.
At the end of last year, after 35 years and a string of President’s Awards along the way, the top honor Toyota gives to recognize the success of its dealers, Stefanovich sold Go Automotive in Clinton to Deacon Jones. He has been assisting with Go’s pre-owned location on Carolina Beach Road, Wilmington, to be closer to daughter Annie, who gave birth to her first child — Steve and wife Julie’s first grandchild.
The new dog park off Fisher Drive bears the “Go” name and logo of Stefanovich’s longtime car dealership in Clinton. Stefanovich worked with city department heads and others in helping bringing the project, years in the making, to fruition earlier this year.
“There’s a beginning and an end to everything,” Stefanovich has said. “This community has been so good to us — we’ve tried to repay it as best we could.”
Along with Ruggles, also swearing oaths were Starling, longest-tenured Councilman Marcus O. Becton and Darue Bryant, elected after being appointed earlier this year upon Maxine Harris’ passing. All ran unopposed for their respective seats.
“The City Council will continue to operate with the same integrity we’ve always had and will keep doing everything we can to improve the quality of life for the citizens,” said Starling. “That is our goal.”
Ruggles, the former Sampson County Republican Party chairman and lifetime resident of Clinton’s District 1, was the lone newcomer.
Raised on Stewart Avenue in District 1, Ruggles still lives there, now with his young family.
“I’ve lived in the town my whole life; I’ve lived in the district my whole life — it’s home,” Ruggles said earlier this year. “This district is just a part of me. It’s in my heart.”
An employee for Safe Data Inc. out of Wallace, Ruggles works primarily with Triad Farms, a contractor for Smithfield Hog Production.
“I like what they have been doing with downtown revitalization,” Ruggles has stated. “My goals would be to continue the positive changes that have been going on. I like what they’re doing, and I just want to build upon that and continue it.”
Clinton Mayor Lew Starling took the oath for his ninth term in office on Tuesday.
Starling has been unopposed for mayor since first running for election to the mayoral office 16 years ago against longtime Mayor Emsley Kennedy, who held the office for 28 years. There have been just three mayors and three town clerks for Clinton in the past half century.
Starling has pointed to the Royal Lane Park renovations and noted that, once N.C. 24 improvements are complete, there will likely be other projects to follow. The city has also significantly upgraded its water system, bringing new wells online in recent years. Investing in good, dedicated people has always been at the foundation of the city’s success, and must continue to be a part of its future, he has noted.
“We’ve accomplished things and we’re pleased with that, but there’s so much that has got to be done,” the mayor has said. “Now is a time we really need to make a big push for our downtown.”
The longest tenured Clinton City Council member, Becton has served on the Clinton City Council since 1996. He was first appointed to the board’s District 3 seat, before winning election to the district seat in 1997. He was officially sworn in as Clinton’s mayor pro tem in May, assuming the post previously held by Harris.
He is the first African-American man to serve as mayor pro tem, and again swore the oath on Tuesday to continue in that position.
“I’m very positive about the direction the city is going and the accomplishments in my district,” Becton has stated.
Becton mentioned specifically the improvements at Newkirk Park — he is on the Newkirk Park Advisory Committee — as well as sidewalk extensions and overall cleanup that have revamped the district.
Becton serves as a grief counselor, notary public and funeral attendant at Worley Funeral Home Inc. in Clinton. He also pastors Way of the Cross Church in Turkey, celebrating his 28th pastoral anniversary in June.
“We have a wonderful Council,” said Becton, noting “Clinton has changed for the better.”
Bryant was elected to his first full term as District 5 representative last month.
“I have a great deal of pride in my city,” Bryant has stated. “I have a passion for the community. I really want to make sure the people’s voices are heard.”
Bryant’s goal is to improve public safety and housing in District 5. The addition of a Clinton Police substation at Dogwood Circle by the “very responsive police department” has greatly assisted in the effort and Habitat for Humanity’s presence in the community has been felt, and it was the hope that will be an ongoing partnership, he noted.
Bryant, who is invested in the community with two businesses, Wall Street Barbers and multimedia company Kingdom Productions, pointed to a great working relationship among Council members.
“We come together, we work together and we make sure that the community and the city comes first,” he said. “By doing so, we’re able to see a lot of good things come out of it.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.