ELLERBE — The Town of Ellerbe saw a changing of the guard at mayor Monday night with Councilman Fred Cloninger taking over from Lee Berry, who declined to run for reelection in favor of a run for county commissioner in 2020.
The council chambers were packed with local and state leaders including Sen. Tom McInnis, Superior Court Judge Dawn Layton, Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue and others to see Berry off.
“It’s an honor to have served y’all for 6 years,” Berry said, adding that he would continue to attend council meetings, though now from the other side, and he’ll be an active participant in the council’s 15 minute citizens’ question time before each meeting. “I know a lot of questions to ask now after 6 years. I have enjoyed it and I think you’ve got a group coming on with Joe (Grooms) and Fred — I couldn’t think of anybody any better to replace me than Fred, I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Cloninger took his oath of office, followed by new Councilman Joe Grooms and returning Councilman Jeremy McKenzie. The new mayor sat in the center position for the first time and thanked his supporters.
“We’re going to do our very best to do what’s best for the citizens of Ellerbe and Town of Ellerbe,” Cloninger said.
His first official act was to honor Berry with a plaque “in grateful appreciation and recognition of your outstanding leadership and devoted service to the citizens of our community as mayor.” Cloninger’s second official act was to nominate Elsie Freeman — who was to be leaving the council after receiving the lowest votes in November — to finish out the remaining two years of his term on the council.
The other council members quickly motioned in support of Freeman. Freeman said she was surprised by the nomination, which came after Berry had recognized her for her work on the council.
“I had no idea, they could’ve chosen anybody,” Freeman said.
“Even though she finished third (in the election) I just didn’t think we could find anyone who worked as hard as Elsie,” Cloninger said. “I felt like she was the best choice to fill the duration of my seat.”
Cloninger was born and raised in Ellerbe and graduated from Richmond Senior High School in 1974. He moved out of the county for five years and got married in 1979, then lived in Rockingham until 2016 when he returned to Ellerbe following the death of his parents.
Professionally, Cloninger has worked in the textiles industry, worked for the Department of Agriculture, at Purdue, then at Vulcan Materials Company where he has been for the last 32 years.
At the end of the meeting Monday, Cloninger said he thinks of Ellerbe as encompassing more that just the city limits and said the council needs more community involvement to do address issues that face residents. For example, he pointed to the Downtown Merchant’s Association changing its name to the Neighbor’s Association in the hopes that it would signal that it was open to more than just business owners.
“I myself was one of those people who thought, ‘Well I can’t go to those meetings because I’m not a merchant,’ so we changed the name to try to draw in more people from outside and I’m sad to say we haven’t done that as well as we’d like,” Cloninger said Monday. “We’re trying to better Ellerbe.”
In an interview Tuesday, he said people often only get involved “when things are going wrong but don’t want to come in and be a part of the solution.”
“I’d just like to see more people get involved so we can get more views and opinions … I don’t have a plan to do that — I just try to talk to people and make them aware of what’s going on and give them an opportunity to be a part of it,” he said.
Cloninger said that one of the first issues that the council will face is working to get grant funding to repair the town’s aging water infrastructure. Water lines in the area are 60 and 70 years old, and Cloninger said there are times when there are “quite a few” water leaks and other issues which cost taxpayer money to repair.
Of his personal goals, Cloninger said his passion since he joined the council was to improve Ellerbe’s parks and recreation offerings, but said that has to be done with tight funds because town’s tax base has been stagnant.
“I would love to spend a half-million dollars on recreation,” he said.
On Berry’s tenure with the city, Cloninger had only positive things to say.
“Lee has done a very good job managing the town. I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” he said. “I just need to continue the direction he’s got the town going in and maybe step it up.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]