It is the hope of commissioners and county staff that the longest sitting member on the Sampson County Board of Commissioners will be able to be present at his final full regular meeting in November before giving up his seat in December.
However, after months of missed meetings due to health issues, that may be all there is for the prospect of John Blanton’s attendance — hope.
Blanton, who is currently in the rehabilitation unit at the VA Medical Center in Fayetteville, has been receiving treatment for health issues since the spring. Apart from his attendance at a July 17 meeting to act as the tie-breaking vote toward approving the 2012-13 budget, Blanton’s recuperation has kept him away from all meetings — including every budget work session — since early May.
County manager Ed Causey, who visited with Blanton earlier this month, said the longtime commissioner was optimistic and in a great state of mind.
“He seems to me to be doing well,” said Causey. “I know he was hopeful he would be able to come home and go to the last meeting in December. I think that might be hope more than anything. I don’t know if I would expect him back.”
While the remarks may have been made half-jokingly, Blanton was so positive during an Oct. 12 meeting that there was talk of getting better “so he could run again,” Causey said. Blanton will be stepping down at the end of this year after 17 years on the board, opting not to seek reelection to his District 4 seat and leaving the race to two Democratic challengers. Harry Parker subsequently beat out Joshua McLamb in the May primary and will swear his oath in December.
It is the hope that Blanton will either be at November’s meeting or at December’s morning meeting for the changing of the guard. This summer, Blanton expressed his intention to be at the rest of the meetings in his final term, which prompted consideration by the board, in July and again in August, of possibly changing the monthly meetings for the rest of the year from 7 p.m. to 10 a.m. to accommodate him.
Commissioners discussed the matter and the adverse effect it could have with personal schedules and public participation. Ultimately, it was Blanton who asked that the board continue on, with or without him. While his desire was to attend the meetings and mornings were more convenient, he did not wish to change the schedule at the expense of his fellow commissioners or the public, he said.
In August, Commissioner Jefferson Strickland noted his desire to see Blanton recognized in some way by the board in the months to follow. “I would hope that at some point in time between now and what would be (his last meeting), to come to some type of consensus, some type of session that he could be here,” he said then.
This week, he echoed those sentiments.
Strickland has visited Blanton, as well as called him, frequently since Blanton has been away. Strickland said he recently had a conversation with Blanton during which the two talked about their families and were able to fellowship for a while. Ever the commissioner, Blanton asked several times about the state of the county and how everything was going.
“We thought he might come home,” said Strickland. “He could not say definitively, but was hoping to be in time for Thanksgiving.”
Strickland said, whether it is sooner or later, during Blanton’s tenure or not, he wants to see his fellow commissioner and friend recognized in some way for years of service to Sampson County.
“Whether it’s personally or professionally,” Strickland said, “I want to in some way be able to honor his service.”
Causey said it would be a deserved distinction. He cited Blanton as one of the reasons he applied for, and subsequently accepted the county manager position in March 2010.
“One of the reasons I applied for this position at the time was my regard for the commissioners, particularly Mr. Blanton,” said Causey. “He was always fair. I never perceived him as having an agenda aside from doing what is right for Sampson County. He never wanted to push anything other than finding the facts. I’ve always found him to be a remarkable man.”
Even when Causey was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, he found Blanton to be a great champion of local growth, especially as it pertained to education. When people expressed frustration with the federal and local government process and whether it will be able to help them, Blanton eased their concerns and reassured them, always serving as “an ardent supporter of the programs.”
Causey also recalled the view Blanton shared with him on local government and what the board’s ultimate goal should be, despite differences on particular issues and opposing party affiliations.
“He said that one of the things we’ve got to learn is that politics is OK, but we need to do what is right for the county and be able to put that staff behind us when we need to,” said Causey.
Upon returning to Sampson County in July for the only Board of Commissioners meeting he has attended in the nearly the past six months, Blanton delivered a heartfelt speech about the health issues he was confronting and his gratitude for Sampson County and its people.
He said he had given it everything he had, and implored others to do the same.
“I’ve served a long time in this county as a commissioner,” he said. “This December, it will be 17 years I have served. I don’t know many people have served more than that. I’ve given it everything I have, and that’s all that matters. I ask you, if you’ve given all you can give, that’s all you can ask.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.