Town’s longest serving mayor prepares for 25th re-election

Published 2:21 pm Friday, August 4, 2023

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At 80 years young, Tom Richter is gearing up for his 25th election for Mayor of Washington Park. Dissimilar to candidates in elections across Beaufort County who are planning and executing their campaigns, Richter can take it easy. He has been mayor of Washington Park since 1975 and has run unopposed for the last ten years. Being mayor is just who he is and has always been. 

If Richter is not the state’s longest serving mayor with 48 consecutive years, he is definitely among the top. “There can’t be too many that have 48 straight mayoral years from the get go,” Richter quipped. 

What keeps him running for re-election is how easy it is being mayor, because it doesn’t require much of his time, the town’s board of five commissioners remains mostly cohesive on goals and objectives, and it is rare that commissioners have an argument, Richter shared. In his tenure, he has only voted twice when the board was evenly split because a commissioner was absent. 

He expressed his appreciation for the civility possessed by various town boards and residents whose cohesiveness and homogeneity in values have made being mayor mostly simple and straightforward. 

Richter shared that his “indebted” to residents for their cooperation and few critiques and that the last 24 board of commissioners he has worked with have “been without exception” consisting of “capable and dedicated individuals.” 

As a kid, Richter grew up vacationing in Nags Heads and on rainy days his family would drive to Washington. 

Three weeks after graduating with a Master’s Degree in City Planning, Richter was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 to serve in the Vietnam War. When he returned to the States, he submitted job applications across the country, but when he visited Washington for a job interview, it was clear this was where he was meant to be. 

On Aug. 14, 1970, drove into Washington from New Bern on the tail-end of a thunderstorm. “There were gray skies down river – up river, bright sunshine. So that sun was coming in underneath the clouds, lighting up all the backsides of the buildings in Washington, and it just looked like some sort of Mediterranean landscape. It was just gorgeous, and the air was so clean, scrubbed by the rain,” Richter said. 

For the next 30 years, he worked as a city planner for the North Carolina Division of Community Assistance which helped small towns who were without city managers and planning boards, Richter said. He assisted 20 northeastern counties and small communities, and only two of those counties had a county manager. When Richter arrived in Washington, it had a city manager, but he watched Beaufort County hire a county manager. In the 1950’s and 1960’s towns and counties had finance managers who also operated as either city or county managers. 

Because of his professional experience working with counties and towns on planning, finance management and his assistance in writing a zoning ordinance for the town, the previous mayor encouraged Richter to run for mayor.

For newcomers to the Washington area, it may be confusing to discern Washington Park from the City of Washington. Though Washington Park is a town with a town office and trash service, Richter says a better description of it is an “incorporated neighborhood.” 

“It is a little different, there’s some different rules we have to follow, but essentially this is an incorporated neighborhood, functions like a neighborhood, people think of it as a neighborhood, and real estate people describe us as a neighborhood,” Richter said. 

Incorporated in 1923, Washington Park is one mile in length from the end of a bridge on River Road past Backwater Jack’s Tiki Bar to just short of Carlie C’s ICS on River Road. Within that mile, more than 400 people call Washington Park home. 

Being that it is a small area, the town has inter-local agreement with either the City of Washington or Beaufort County for services it does not offer such as building inspection and permitting, emergency medical and fire services, sanitary services, tax collection and law enforcement. 

In the nearly five decades since Richter has been in office, Washington Park has experienced the construction of tennis courts, a playground and speed bumps. The town also entered a partnership with Beaufort County for water service and 20 years successfully fended off NCDOT who wanted to make River Road a four-lane road from the bridge into the town. The tax rate has remained low at .029, because the town does not offer many services.