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Cook column: Forums reveal annexation attitudes

Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College deserves an ovation for moderating three candidate forums last week.
A political science professor at Catawba College, Bitzer has been moderating forums for Salisbury City Council candidates for several years. The forums came about through a partnership among Catawba, the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce and the Salisbury Post.
When a few of us met to plan this year’s City Council forum, we discussed sponsoring more forums in other municipalities. But Rowan County has 10 towns altogether. It seemed too much to tackle.
But Linda Sherrill, the chamber’s membership director, quickly went to work and found local groups willing to incorporate a candidate forum in their monthly meetings ó the Rockwell Community Association, the China Grove Board of Trade and the Spencer Business Association.
Before he could say “municipal election,” Bitzer was roped into moderating forums for every single one.
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Bitzer has been advancing the (small d) democratic process for years. He has moderated forums for county commission, school board and legislative races ó and probably others I’ve forgotten.
He has led the Candidate Academy that Catawba, the Chamber of Commerce and the Post co-sponsored in years past to give aspiring citizens an idea of what they might be getting themselves into if they ran for public office. It’s one thing to sit in a board meeting and vote ó the part of the job people can read about and witness, if they want. It’s something else to understand all the responsibilities and challenges of serving in public office.
Like being “pinned against the asparagus at Harris Teeter,” as Salisbury candidate Maggie Blackwell described seeing council member Mark Lewis once as a constituent bent his ear about something. I’ve always thought of serving on a town board as where the rubber meets the road in politics; elected officials run into constituents every day, not just during scheduled events. Now there’s a new mental image for local politics ó where you can get pinned against the asparagus.
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The Post’s job in this partnership was to collect questions from readers. The hope was that Bitzer could then choose from the many submissions to decide what he would ask the candidates.
Salisbury City Council was no problem; plenty of people sent in questions ó many good questions.
But we received few to no questions for Rockwell, China Grove and Spencer, so Bitzer went to work researching local issues himself. And the key issues inevitably came up ó water rates in China Grove, absentee landlords in Spencer, revitalizing downtown in Rockwell, annexation in Salisbury.
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In fact, forced annexation came up over and over in the forums. Candidates described annexation as everything from a “necessary evil” to just downright evil. Others came up with shades of gray.
Two candidates have been annexed ó Charles Black of Salisbury and Mike Upright of China Grove and. But they look at the issue differently.
Black, annexed into Salisbury in 2007 and still lacking some city services, opposes involuntary annexation.
“It’s dipping in your pocketbook,” he said. “I believe people ought to have a right to vote for it.” And, he said, annexed areas should get city services sooner than two years later.
Upright, on the other hand, didn’t rule out annexing other areas, if elected.
Other towns like Landis and Kannapolis might encroach on China Grove by annexing land on its perimeter. “Once that’s done, it’s gone,” Upright said.
“You have to grow or die on the vine.” Upright said.
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Annexation drew several county residents to the Salisbury City Council forum. I don’t think they were there out of concern for the county seat.
Since asking 12 candidates the same question gets repetitive and leaves the 12th person with little to say, Bitzer divided the candidates into four groups and asked each different questions. So only four were specifically asked about annexation. But others staked themselves out anyway while answering other questions.
Bitzer asked the candidates if residents in a proposed annexation area should have a voice in the process, a vote.
Black, Carl Dangerfield, Blake Jarman, Benjamin Johnson and William Peoples said emphatically that they opposed involuntary annexation. Miller said the people in the annexation area should have a vote. Blackwell said she’d vote for it under duress, but the people in the annexation area and the city should have a vote.
The incumbents ó Pete Kennedy, Susan Kluttz, Mark Lewis and Paul Woodson ówere not asked the annexation question, and I don’t recall any of them addressing it. Besides, they spoke with their actions last year when they proposed annexation of the N.C. 150 corridor and backed off when a maneuver by residents made it financially impossible.
People outside the city are working for candidates who oppose annexation; they want to remove the threat. The election will gauge how voters in the city feel about that. They really have yet to speak.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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