Elizabeth Cook: Top of the ticket matters in Rowan

  • Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2013 12:58 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, September 16, 2013 9:48 a.m.

Note: This column has been edited to reflect the fact that North Carolina’s new voter ID law goes into effect in 2016.

As soon as this year’s municipal elections are over in November, the people of Salisbury should push for a change in the way we select our mayor.

This is not a beef with the current mayor or any of his predecessors. But voters deserve a more direct say in who leads the city. They should be choosing among candidates who want to be mayor and mayor only — a job with very demanding duties — and not leave it to the winning council candidates to choose a mayor from their own ranks.

With few exceptions, City Council has traditionally chosen its top vote-getter as mayor. And that has served the city well. Some other towns such as Faith choose their mayor the same way. The cream rises to the top, some would say.

But being mayor of a city the size of Salisbury is nearly a full-time job. The mayor becomes a major spokesperson and advocate for the city — the face and voice of the city. That person’s selection should involve less chance and more direct election.

Although, to be sure, every election involves a lot of chance.

Other possible changes that people have been buzzing about across Rowan County include allowing recall elections, doing away with second primaries and/or shortening the terms of county commissioners from four years to two — whatever it takes to avoid predicaments like the one we’re in now, with least-favored candidates winning control of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.

Let’s start at the top.

The top vote getter on the Board of Commissioners is newcomer Mike Caskey, who seems to be the junior member of the ruling triumvirate led by Chairman Jim Sides and Vice Chairman Craig Pierce.

If the commission followed Sides’ old logic, the chairman would be chosen the same way Salisbury selects its mayor — top vote-getter. But as often happens, logic shifts to justify personal goals.

When Sides was elected to the board in 2004, he said the top vote-getter traditionally became chairman, so he nominated Arnold Chamberlain for the spot. Instead, a more moderate conservative, Frank Tadlock, won the chairmanship with only Sides voting against him.

Now Sides is chairman, though he was not the top vote-getter the year he was elected and is currently the lowest vote-getter on the board.

Here’s the history: Sides first served on the county commission from 1980 to 1984. Then he tried to move up the political ladder and lost a bid for state House. Sides dropped out of sight politically until he ran for commissioner again in 2004 and won. He lost re-election in 2008, the year Barack Obama won the presidency. But Sides had better luck in the off-year election of 2010, coming in third behind Chad Mitchell and Jon Barber with 18,817 votes.

Last summer, Pierce and Caskey squeaked onto the ballot in a run-off primary that drew only 8 percent turnout. They had 2,843 and 2,746 votes, respectively. In the general election, with voters turning out heavily for the presidential race, Caskey led the commissioners’ race with 34,410 votes. His and Pierce’s terms go through 2016.

The terms of Barber, Mitchell and Sides expire in 2014 — Rowan’s next chance to right the ship.

Make sure you’re registered to vote well before the election. (But don’t worry about a voter ID yet. The state’s new law doesn’t go into effect until 2016.)

If you live in a town, you can get good practice by voting in the upcoming municipal elections. Registration books close Oct. 11. Early voting begins Oct. 17. Election Day is Nov. 5.

So, Salisbury residents, what questions do you have for City Council candidates?

A forum for City Council candidates is slated for Oct. 29 in the Peeler Crystal Lounge at Catawba College. Sponsors are Catawba, the Rowan Area Chamber of Commerce and the Salisbury Post.

Dr. Michael Bitzer, political science professor and acting provost, will moderate the discussion.

Ten people are running for the five seats on City Council: Karen Alexander, Maggie Blackwell, Rick Honeycutt, Blake Jarman, Pete Kennedy, Brian Miller, William Peoples, Tom Speaks, Dale Stephens and Paul Woodson.

The Post is collecting questions for the candidates from our readers. You can submit questions any of these ways:

Email to editor@salisburypost.com.

Mail to: Elizabeth Cook, Salisbury Post, P.O. Box 4639, Salisbury, NC 28145.

Call me at 704-797-4244.

I’ll pass all the questions along to Bitzer, who chooses which ones to ask.

Meanwhile, there’s another forum coming up in two days. The Senior Democrats of Rowan County are sponsoring a candidate forum for City Council candidates 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Hurley Room of the Rowan Public Library, 201 W. Fisher St. The public is invited.

Usually there are a couple more forums in the City Council race; look for news about those in the Salisbury Post.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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