Down-to-Earth Leadership: William Pitt Never Forgets the “Why” in Public Service

Ben Brown and Jack Cassidy, NCLM Communications

A leader isn’t a suit and tie.

Sure, dress for the occasion. Honor decorum. But be a human first, learn with good faith, build capacity to help, and be real about the consequences, says William Pitt, the Washington City Council Member now rounding out a year as president of the N.C. League of Municipalities.

“Respect is earned,” he says.

Sitting in a conference room in the Washington Municipal Building, Pitt makes it clear that he does not use the term “politician,” despite holding six terms as an elected official. He rejects the connotations of the word, the survivalist gamesmanship—the aspects of leadership that don’t work for the constituents. Rather, Pitt said he sees any honest place in leadership as crucial time to selfevaluate, listen and serve.

It’s also borrowed time. Pitt especially understands the temporal nature of elected office, and squashes any feeling of career-like permanence, keeping his mind on why and how he’s there to begin with. He brushed with a reminder in the 2019 municipal elections, his name literally drawn from a basket to win what had been a tied race for his council seat, truly every vote counting.

“When you get elected,” he said, “you never know how long it will be.”

He’s also candid about his first run at office, back in the 1980s. “I dutifully failed at it,” he said, speaking of it like a win for personal growth. “As I was told by the former (League) director, Ellis Hankins, ‘Learn more, come back, and you’ll be great one day.’

“A lot of folks don’t take rejection,” Pitt said. “I did.”

He took it as a reality he could build from, going on to collect sheafs of educational materials for public officials, from sources like the League and the UNC School of Government, and immersed himself. He cast off any assumption that his job skills (he worked as a 911 dispatcher) would have to be the core of his character as an elected servant. He said he simply wanted to know the real, raw, unapologetic context of a seat on the city council so he could deliver efficiently with the time the voters of Washington afforded him.

“I’m a big proponent of education for elected officials,” Pitt said. “It is not sexy. But it’s things you need to know.”

Positioned as such, he won election in 2008, kept his classroom mind in session and learned to operate on a decision-making system he calls “Role, Goal and Toll.”

“The actions of a city council have a three-pronged effect on the growth of that community,” Pitt explained. A council member’s role, he said, is to acknowledge that there’s always more to learn and always a reason to keep an open mind. He or she is there directly due to voter approval and an expectation of good for the community.

“The goal is, what is your reason for doing this?” Pitt continued. “Why do you even want to do this?” He said a big piece in becoming a real leader is to “understand yourself better.”

“Your toll is, no matter how much you do, there are consequences,” Pitt asserted. “Everything you do has a cost, whether it’s a dollar cost, whether it has a cost to the community…. Everything has a cost.”

Beyond there, it doesn’t matter who tailors your clothes, he suggested; it’s all about what you can get done. Even small implementations go the distance, Pitt said in mentioning his pride in the creation of a safety zone at the police department for the exchange of goods purchased off websites like Craigslist.

“I saw it in Williamston,” Pitt said. “And all it really involved was a sign (denoting the safe exchange location) … to keep the people safe. It cost the city about $170.”

It’s significant to Pitt that he learned of the idea outside of city limits, from a neighboring government, which is one aspect of the League he has enjoyed and continues to tap. Pitt thinks all government officials should “step outside their boundaries” and share solutions. He’s served on every policy committee in the League’s portfolio, sought and won the organization’s vice-presidency, which he served alongside then-president Michael Lazzara (the mayor pro-tem of Jacksonville) before becoming president.

He cited a conversation he had with Lazzara that further separated the ego from the office. “When it’s all said and done, five or 10 years from now… it’s going to be William who?” People’s minds have probably moved on from who served on council in the past or what they got done, even as they enjoy the results of that person’s service. Anyone who’s real about that and continues to serve is in a better position.

“When I served on (the City of Washington Electric Utilities Advisory Board)” he said, “I was really happy we were able to do extensions for our customers, because sometimes you can’t pay your bill on time. I was able to help that board come up with a series of extensions so that customer had additional time, and to offer some things to customers that they don’t know about.”

Project Help, for one, rounds up customers’ utility bills, supplying a special fund that helps other residents pay.

Pitt is also proud of the city’s downtown WiFi, created with a development group and run by city government as a convenient way for downtown-goers to tap in and check email or transact quick business. The city utilizes the Municipal Building as a physical connection between city government and residents, who can pay utility bills there and also access the recent addition of a license plate office. For residents who might have a hard time making it out there, Pitt likes the idea of a mobile city hall, like a food truck that can visit different neighborhoods.

The theme of impermanence pervades Pitt’s approach to office, but so does legacy. Walking through downtown Washington, Pitt passes historic building after historic building before making his way to his favorite part of town, the boardwalk that overlooks Pamlico River. It’s a scenic tour through a town better off than when he found it.

He’ll keep the role as long as the citizens of Washington will have him, and as long as he’s effective. But when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

“Traveling across this state you get to see and hear things and you get to meet folks who are just like you and just as committed,” said Pitt. “But the main part about staying committed is to know when to walk away. Walking away from elected office is hard… There’s a gospel song that says, ‘I don’t feel no ways tired…’ Your family’s health and your life are just as important as that piece of legislation. They’re more important.”

There’s no fear of time running out. If anything, Pitt celebrates the finiteness. Standing in the Washington Council Chambers, Pitt reflects on that role once again, connecting it with his love of photography.

“It’s like capturing a sliver of time, a single moment.”