Last November, Chatham County narrowly elected its first Latino county commissioner, Franklin Gomez Flores, to replace incumbent Andy Wilkie as District 5’s representative. Gomez Flores took office …
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Last November, Chatham County narrowly elected its first Latino county commissioner, Franklin Gomez Flores, to replace incumbent Andy Wilkie as District 5’s representative. Gomez Flores took office a month later and has now been serving as commissioner for nearly six months. This week, we speak with him to see how the job’s been treating him as well as how he’s used his role to advocate for the county’s Hispanic community, which was a central part of his campaign.
You’ve been a county commissioner for about six months now. So, is the role what you expected it to be? In what ways has the job met and/or defied your expectations?
I definitely had my expectations. I think the first months of my first time serving were unique. It began during a pandemic, in the midst of the cyber incident, with the first significant project being the Capital Improvement Plan. It definitely has required a lot of reading, listening and learning.
Meetings can occur at various times during the day, and some weeks are heavier than others, making it difficult to have a full-time job during the first or second shift. I am glad I had anticipated that and that I positioned myself for the time commitment.
What’s been your most memorable moment as commissioner since taking office?
Initially, of course, getting sworn in. But as time passed, it became when vaccines began getting administered in Chatham County. While I had nothing to do with that, it provided a sense of hope for the well-being of our community, and for an end to the pandemic.
Being on the Board of Health has proven to me that Chatham is blessed to have a great staff working in our Public Health Department during the pandemic. They have been strategic with the funds we received for COVID and with establishing partnerships so that the department can better use its resources for the benefit of the county.
What have been the best and worst parts of the job for you so far?
The best part of the job is the opportunity to serve Chatham. For example: being in a position to lead and create change. Not for the power, but to inspire others to do good in Chatham and to work as a team for the benefit of our community.
As I engage with individuals, businesses and organizations, I realize that Chatham is a gem. We are home to committed individuals, we have many activist groups and environmentally conscious businesses. There is a great desire to address environmental concerns especially the reduction of our carbon footprint. Many residents have sought to capture solar energy, businesses planning to install electric vehicle charging stations and innovative technology being developed in Chatham to reduce the amount of “rejected energy” within our energy grid.
My least favorite part is the limitations on what we can and cannot do when it conflicts with what Chatham residents need or want. For example: currently, as I prepare these answers, N.C. counties cannot invest taxpayer money for broadband/internet, making it an issue since we urgently need access to high-speed internet in Chatham. This has become a major issue given that funds from the American Rescue Plan will be allowed to be used for broadband. Thankfully, we have legislation at the state level to address this restriction. We are also limited in how we can generate revenue. It would be nice to have more flexibility so that we do not rely heavily on taxes.
Last year, you told the News + Record that you sought to provide the Latino community a voice on the county board. Since taking office, in what ways have you used your position to advocate for the Latino community and amplify Latino voices in Chatham County?
The members of the Latin American community are more likely to live below the poverty level, and my district, District 5, has one of the lowest average incomes in Chatham. I have been placing myself in positions that combat the effects of poverty. I am a voting member of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and of the Board of Health.
In 2017, the Public Health Department transitioned out of adult primary care and expanded Public Health communication and epidemiology programs. Recently, the Board of Health (myself included) voted to transition out of being a primary care provider for children to focus on community-based and population health services.
A good concentration of the Latin American community lives in the west and in District 5. I am ensuring that District 5 has the representation it deserves. I have appointed Eric Andrews from Bear Creek, and Dustin Mauldin from Siler City to the Chatham County Planning Board for District 5. While neither of my two appointments are Latinos, they both live in District 5 and represent everyone in District 5, including Latin Americans. They replaced the former District 5 appointments, one from Apex and another from Pittsboro.
I supported the appointment of Alirio Estevez to the Affordable Housing Committee as a county-wide appointment. While he does not live in western Chatham, he does serve Siler City as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at Siler City Elementary. He engages with families and understands the plight of the Latin American community and of western Chatham.
How will you moving forward?
First of all, I will continue having faith in my Lord. I will continue to make my usual prayers: thanking the Lord for a new day of life and asking for the opportunity to learn, understand and grow wiser. These first months have been dedicated to learning and observing the mechanisms in place. I will continue to engage with community members to learn from them, to connect them with one another, and to refer them to those who may be of assistance to them.
How has the Latino community received you so far? What kind of feedback have you received since taking office?
Many community members are optimistic. I am a key individual with influence, so there are high expectations. Fortunately, they are aware that I, alone, do not make the decisions. Many have thanked me for the courage, and have shared that I have inspired them to get involved with our community. Others have thanked me for being a positive role model to their children.
Can you tell us what you think are the most pressing issues facing Chatham’s Latino community and what you’d like to see the board do about them?
Jobs are an issue that resonates with all communities. We all want quality jobs, the type of jobs that values and appreciates their employee’s time, energy and efforts. I believe the board has been committed to attracting high-quality jobs. Efforts to extend utilities to [Chatham County’s two] megasites have been and are being made, and investments in education have been made. I would like for us to continue to find creative ways for Chatham to stand out and be more appealing to potential employers.
Within minority communities, there are gaps in the education and understanding of, but not limited to, our educational, financial, political and health systems in the United States. Partnerships are key, I would like for the board to continue to seek to close these gaps and to establish partnerships when opportunities are presented. I benefited from a partnership with Scholars’ Latino Initiative that helped me learn the educational system while at Jordan-Matthews. I am confident we can establish more partnerships to address these gaps.
What advice do you have for a member of Chatham’s Latino community who may be thinking about following in your footsteps?
First and foremost, I placed my faith in my Lord; I am a believer and I do pray.
I believe respect is bi-directional. Always be respectful and always be an active listener.
Get involved! There are county advisory boards that provide an opportunity to learn about how the county functions. Identify what you are passionate about and get involved. I began serving Chatham County on the Chatham County Planning Board. There are also town advisory boards that serve town boards. I encourage you to submit your applications!
Take the leap of faith. Municipal elections are coming up. They are also important, they elect who serves your town or city. In 2017, I ran for Siler City town board. While I lost, I considered it a blessing in disguise because it led to me being considered for the Planning Board.
Reach Gomez Flores at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 919-799-3965.