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The spread of binders on Julie Robison’s porch must have filled a closet once. She had unearthed dozens for a final inspection.
“I think I’m the only person on Earth who has a copy of this stuff,” she said. It was a decade’s worth of officialdom, and the resigning councilwoman seemed a little hesitant to part with it all.
Robison, 53, on Thursday ended a 10-year run on the Cary Town Council, attending a last meeting before moving to Morgantown, W.Va., for her husband’s new job. During almost 11 years on the town’s governing board, she saw the political pendulum swing, won election three times and lost once, and had her say about miles of construction that have redefined Cary.
In “real life” she built and trained governments worldwide, including post-war Iraq, where she shaped the village council system. In Cary’s politics she was a “citizen advocate,” the council member who most often sided with residents. Her legacy includes a founding role in the town’s School of Government and a successful push for an environmental sustainability manager.
“She carried the flag for many causes that are now prevalent,” said Mayor Harold Weinbrecht. “She always wanted processes for open government and citizen involvement, and the ability for citizens to participate.”
Robison is a warmhearted woman who admits she’s prone to tangents and tardiness. Yet, excepting the occasional late arrival, the former councilwoman missed only a fraction of the tens of thousands of hours of board and committee meetings over the last decade, even while serving weeks-long stints for work everywhere from Benin to Bulgaria.
The Wisconsin native’s elected career began a few years after she and husband Dan moved the family to Cary. She joined a crowded field in 2001, including future state representative Nelson Dollar, but then-councilman Weinbrecht took notice and offered his support. She said “No, thanks.”
“It was almost intimidating,” the mayor recalled Thursday.
During those early years she began to establish the residents-first stance and detail-raking eye that would bedevil more than a few developers.
“She held the bar very high for development to not impact those that were already there. That was the true measure of Julie in a lot of ways,” said Jack Smith, the council’s longest-serving member.
Two years after her election, Robison challenged the council’s top dog, former mayor Glen Lang. The council had lost a degree of faith in Lang by the end of his first term, troubled by the informal policies that would later spawn costly lawsuits, Robison said. “We all said, ‘Man, we need a new mayor, and who’s going to do it, who’s going to run?’ ” she recalled.
Robison lost that election by seven percentage points. She kept her seat on council, but Weinbrecht lost his – and the council, Robison said, shifted away from her.
“For four years, I think a clean way to say it was I was the minority,” Robison said. She saw herself as something of a lone wolf in those years, often on the losing side of votes.
She found small victories, too, in one case using neighborhood pressure and the help of then-Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker to circumvent a reticent council and bring federal attention to contamination near Black Creek Greenway, she said.
Her third term would bring another swing. With Weinbrecht’s election to mayor in 2007, Robison found herself in a more dominant position on council. And with her recent retirement from Research Triangle Institute, she became something of a daytime mayor of the town.
Beyond policy victories and party lines, Robison’s fellow council members Thursday honored her for opening a door to Town Hall for Cary residents.
Robison’s husband has already begun work as dean of West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, while her eldest daughter is headed to American University to study journalism this fall. Robison doesn’t plan to re-enter politics; she might open a flower shop instead.