PITTSBORO — Long-time Pittsboro Commissioner Michael Fiocco is embarking on his last month in office after his losing his reelection bid last week — a loss which came after he found himself the target of negative campaigning portraying him as “uncompromisingly pro-growth” and attacking his “destructive pro-developer” voting record.
Fellow Pittsboro candidates on the ballot took exception to the messaging and the messages.
Days before Election Day, Fiocco — an incumbent seeking his 4th term on the board — was the subject of a hand-distributed negative campaign flyer which accused him of siding with the interests of developers, rather than the town, during his 12 years on the board. The claims were echoed in postings on the Chatham Chatlist, a members-only emailed bulletin board digest distributed out of Pittsboro which occasionally includes personal and targeted attacks, sometimes made anonymously. Allegations raised on the forum surrounded motions and votes Fiocco cast related to Chatham Park, the development of which the Pittsboro town board has helped oversee.
Statements included in the flyer said Pittsboro residents “need commissioners who work for the people, not for the developers.” The flyer encouraged residents to “VOTE out Michael Fiocco — and vote for the other candidates on Nov. 2nd!”
Fiocco was joined on the ballot by fellow incumbent Pamela Baldwin and newcomer James Vose. Baldwin and Vose won seats, getting 562 and 560 votes, respectively. Fiocco finished with 400 votes and will finish his term in December.
The flyer also alleged Fiocco was using his background as a “Land Developer Manager” for his consulting firm and civil engineering company to influence the decisions the board made — a claim Fiocco and other board members refute.
“Throughout his long tenure on the Town Board, he has hijacked policy writing in order to aid big developers and has positioned himself to win future clients,” said the flyer, which was produced by a political action committee called “Pittsboro for the People.”
Fiocco said after the election the individual responsible for creating the flyer didn’t live in Pittsboro and distributed it a week prior to Nov. 2.
“The disinformation being shared, often by anonymous sources, was complete fabrication and on occasion taken from official, documented proceedings and used out of context to make me appear unethical or working against the Town’s best interests,” Fiocco told the News + Record. “I knew the statements weren’t true so I didn’t think much of it.”
Posters used similar language in various posts on the Chatham Chatlist.
Fiocco said that type of campaigning can create distrust between the public and their town officials, especially if information is manipulated to fit a certain agenda.
“Disinformation and attacks on character have no place in public discourse,” he said. “It threatens the integrity of the process and sows doubt in our public officials and ultimately in our fellow citizens.”
Fiocco said his engineering background is part of the reason he wanted to get involved with the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners, but not for reasons the flyer intimated. He said he wanted to use his skills to help provide more insight into what Chatham Park Investors were proposing for Chatham Park, as well as to use his background to talk with Chatham Park developers about the needs of Pittsboro.
“I had a particular skill set to offer, the Chatham Park project was looming and I wanted Pittsboro to be well represented,” Fiocco told the News + Record. “I spent a great deal of time talking with stakeholders and other Commissioners to negotiate the Master Plan with Chatham Park. I’m proud of the Additional Elements structure I proposed, and the way they require Chatham Park to evolve sustainably, both economically and environmentally.”
Vose believes his campaigning efforts were the main contributor in his victory, but still feels the messages targeting Fiocco may have played a role in the results.
“I don’t know what the distribution was of those, and I don’t know where they went or how they were distributed,” Vose said. “But I think they had impact.”
Vose initially saw negative statements about Fiocco on Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social media app, which allows members to post comments and create discussions about neighborhood issues.
A day or two after the allegations against Fiocco were made public, Vose said he saw Fiocco at the Pittsboro Street Fair. He pulled Fiocco aside to say he didn’t condone the statements being made about him.
“I went out of my way to approach him and shake his hand and call him off to the side and just say, ‘This isn’t me, man,’” Vose said.
Vose said until he spoke with Fiocco, Fiocco wasn’t aware of the efforts to paint him in an unfavorable light.
“It’s one thing to have someone assault you, but it’s another thing to get sucker-punched,” Vose said. “He’s done his job for a really long time, and the way it went down just wasn’t nice.”
Vose said the timing of the flyer and social media posts seemed intentional, and he didn’t like the way the allegations were phrased.
“It just was a hit piece, it came out late in the game and it came out on a date that he didn’t have a chance to respond by,” Vose said. “If he had responded, it would have seemed like just this futile excuse making, so he did the right thing by not responding.”
Vose said he wanted to enjoy his victory, but that desire was dampened by the claims against Fiocco.
“I’d like to celebrate but I don’t want to gloat, and that’s what it would be right now,” he said. “I would like to be happier about my win than I am right now.”
Mayor-elect Cindy Perry said she’s never liked the idea of local PACs creating negative campaigns.
“I’ve been here a long time and I don’t remember any until just 10 to 15 years ago,” she said. “I think that everybody needs to stand on their own two feet, and when you when you pull a slate together like that, it has a tendency to help a weak candidate pull up by the bootstraps of a stronger candidate.”
Perry said she remembers occasions where Fiocco recused himself from a board vote because of a potential conflict of interest with his consulting and engineering firm, Civil Consultants Inc.
“When I was mayor we were voting on Penguin Place, the development directly behind Bojangles, and his company had a financial stake in that, so he did recuse himself from the actual vote,” she said.
Fiocco followed North Carolina law by recusing himself from the vote, and even though he followed the rules in regard to recusing himself, Perry remembers members of the community criticizing him for contributing to the conversation even after recusing himself.
“As I recall, there were some people who said he needed to step out either into the audience or out of the room for the entire thing — from the time the agenda item was called until the vote was completed,” Perry said.
She called Fiocco one of the most hardworking and well-prepared commissioners she worked with.
“He was an incredibly hard-working commissioner, always very well prepared for meetings, and always very well prepared on everything on the agenda,” Perry said.
She said she wanted to separate herself from the kind of false claims and attacks made in the flyers in question and on the Chatham Chatlist.
“I’ve always been a positive person, and I just really I got to the point where, frankly, I wasn’t gonna respond,” Perry said. “I felt upset about some of the things that were said. I just hope we can, in the future, just campaign on the issues and not on personalities.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.