This is my last column as editor of the Independent. After five years, 265 issues and countless calls and e-mails from flacks, fans, African lotteries and annoyed readers, it’s time to move on.

Which is not to say that I haven’t treasured every minute of it. I have. The Independent is a remarkable institution that may look smooth and polished from the outside (well, most of the time), but is every bit the feisty, hands-on institution you’d hope a truly independent, locally owned community voice would be. It’s put out by writers, editors, designers, ad reps, delivery people and business types who have one thing in commonalways trying to do more than anyone has any right to expect. But we recognize how important the job isas much these days as when Jesse Helms was the reigning power at our founding nearly 25 years ago. If you have any doubts, just imagine the Triangle without it. Something very essential would be missing.

The critical job we do was brought home to me last year at an altweekly newspaper convention in Little Rock, Ark. Gen. Wesley Clark spoke about what he believed were the three most important problems facing America (besides this horrible war): the corporate takeover of government regulations; the failures of our health-care system; and the assault by communications conglomerates on the Internet.

I realized then that those had been among our local priorities, too. Interim Editor Jennifer Strom investigated the development industry’s takeover of an obscure state board that had veto power over the state’s environmental regulations (when she wasn’t chronicling developers’ attempted takeover of Chatham County). Reporter Bob Geary hammered at the failures of the state’s mental health reform, and a retired UNC med school professor wrote about the ways UNC Health Care put money ahead of patients. Fiona Morgan emerged as one of the nation’s most insightful reporters on media consolidation and the fight for control of cable, broadcast and the Internet.

Then there’s the war. Months before it began, we started questioning all the pronouncementsliesabout weapons of mass destruction and strategic goals, and we pointed out the rest of the media’s failure to do their job (“Remember the Maine? Remember the aluminum tubes,” I wrote in March 2003).

And we have hammered at issues that are just as important closer to home: urban sprawl, sustainable agriculture, gay rights, the death penalty and cities’ support for big-ticket projects over artists and small businesses.

I’m proud of keeping my hometown of New Orleans on people’s mindsfrom commissioning a frighteningly prescient story in 2004 about FEMA called “A Disaster Waiting to Happen” to periodic reports from a local Katrina refugee.

So thanks to all at the Indy and the flacks, fans and annoyed readers who made the job so rewarding. Now it’s time to goI think I just won an African lottery.