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Lapsley tapped to help find solutions without partisanship

Bill Lapsley, the chairman of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, has been tapped for a leadership forum that will look at affordable housing issues while also modeling a nonpartisan constructive approach to decision-making.

Lapsley, a civil engineer who has led industry recruitment efforts in the county for decades and helped shape policy on everything from social services and health care to statewide transportation funding, announced the appointment at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting. The new panel was created by the North Carolina Leadership Forum.
The NCLF was formed in 2015 by Leslie Winner and John Hood in partnership with the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy. The goal of the founders, a liberal and conservative respectively, was to create constructive solutions to the state’s challenges without the partisan vitriol that makes accord impossible. Since its creation, the NCLF has launched separate cohorts of leaders tackling jobs, energy, school choice, immigration and Covid-19.
Hood, Winner and Debbie Goldstein, the Leadership Forum’s executive director, visited Lapsley at the Historic Courthouse.
“Apparently I had been recommended by a number of people in the western part of the state to participate and they wanted to meet me,” he said. “After we talked a little bit, they said, ‘We would like to invite you to be on the steering committee and guide these forums and what we’re going to talk about.’”
“The objective as I understand it is to get leaders of both political parties that are not currently statewide elected officials” to come together in a nonpartisan environment, he said. “The atmosphere at the national level and in Raleigh has become hyper-partisan and the intent of these forums is to get leaders who are not statewide elected officials to sit down at the table and talk about these issues that affect everybody and to try to find common ground and to show the parties that that is possible, which does not seem to be happening in Raleigh and Washington.”
“You know I’m a registered Republican and I have conservative viewpoints but I really agree with their goal,” he said. “This is crazy just to have such partisan vitriol in Raleigh and in Washington. People need to sit down and talk it out. I think their goals are worthwhile.”
A civil engineer who over four decades managed hundreds of major developments in and around Henderson County from concept to concrete, Lapsley, 73, was a founding leader of industrial recruitment and economic development efforts in the county, first with the Committee of 100 and later the Partnership for Economic Development. In public life in addition to his economic development roles, Lapsley has served on the county Board of Social Services and currently serves as the County Commission’s liaison on the Board of Public Health. He served on the Pardee Hospital Board of Directors for six years during a period when the county-owned facility entered into a management agreement with UNC Health. Lapsley was then appointed to the UNC Health Board of Trustees, serving for eight years. The state transportation secretary appointed him to the N.C. First committee, a special task force that conducted a broad study of transportation needs and revenue options and made recommendations to the General Assembly on long-term funding. He was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2014, re-elected in 2018 and elected chair in December 2020.
“I think they knew it,” he said of the leadership forum founders’ awareness of his service. “They seemed to know a lot about me.”
While Lapsley agreed that partisanship had hindered efforts to reach accord in Raleigh and Washington, he thinks Henderson County has largely avoided that level of divisiveness.
“I don’t think there’s partisan politics at the local level,” he said. “There’s conservative points of view and liberal points of view. I don’t sense that there’s an atmosphere where people won’t talk to each other.” For more than 25 years, Republicans have dominated Board of Commissioners elections, “so there hasn’t been a situation where there’s three Democrats and two Republicans or vice versa so the vitriol hasn’t been there.”

Forum expanding footprint

The statewide steering committee chooses topics and selects around 30 participants who meet four or five times over a year to discuss solutions. The Western North Carolina steering group, made up of five political, business and community leaders, will choose participants for the affordable housing forums. The forums are expected to start in the late fall, said Hood, former president and current chair of the John Locke Foundation, current president of the John William Pope Foundation and a newspaper columnist since 1986.
“What we’re doing now is replicating in Western North Carolina and in another region and for each of those we’re building a steering committee,” Hood said. “He will be on a steering committee with several other people from Buncombe and surrounding counties.”
The steering committee’s first task will be to identify and recruit the participants in a way that achieves the Leadership Forum’s goal of “ideological balance, geographic balance, balance between public officials and private leadership roles,” Hood said. “Bill will be pitching in on that.”
“Our (statewide) steering committee members will be at those forums, participating, monitoring, making decisions if we need to make any decisions on the fly,” he said. The Leadership Forum also will provide a facilitator who is experienced in guiding discussion in a non-partisan, collegial atmosphere.
“The subject is affordable housing but we do a subject so we can then teach and model ways of interacting with each other that don’t involve name calling and bitter recrimination,” Hood said. The forum is not “a blue ribbon panel” designed to make recommendations. “A side effect could very well be that that there are two or three or four or more ideas that they all agree would help solve the housing problem in the region.” But that’s secondary to “giving them the opportunity to learn and practice a new way of debating issues. … This is primarily about building relationships among leaders and modeling a more grownup way to debate our differences.”
The Leadership Forum is parachuting into the North Carolina mountains and the Piedmont Triad in hopes of expanding its influence and teaching more leaders how to engage in constructive debate.
“We went to Western North Carolina in part because it’s a natural place for us to go to increase the footprint of the North Carolina Leadership Forum,” Hood said. “Statewide cohorts are essential but they won’t be sufficient to reach a real critical mass of leaders in North Carolina. One reason we chose Western North Carolina is that because of the long distance involved we don’t have quite as many alumni in Western North Carolina as we do for example in the Charlotte area or the Triangle. And the other thing is North Carolina is such a diverse state that we want to have participants that are from every corner of the state, every network and every opinion and that naturally leads us west and east and north and south.”