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David Post: Accidental mayors and Salibury’s time for change

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David Post

From a crowded field of 13, Al Heggins will become Salisbury’s next mayor. She ran what may have been the best campaign ever for Salisbury City Council.

Though a historic first, the City Council still has only one African-American.

Though I finished 10 votes behind, neither Al nor I ran for mayor, because that office was not on the ballot. Only Kenny Hardin announced that he was “running for mayor,” but he knew that finishing first was a steep climb. Had Salisbury had a mayor’s race, Kenny could have focused his campaign on that.

Salisbury’s election format is outdated and very yesterday. Some candidates encourage voters to cast “single shot” ballots — maybe to become mayor, maybe to prevent others from getting more votes. Regardless of strategy to become mayor, the outcome elects an entire governing council.

Two years ago, after being elected to City Council, I wrote that Salisbury elected an “accidental mayor” because Salisbury voters don’t elect their mayor. This year, someone asked me, “If you win the most votes, would you feel like an accidental mayor?” My response: “Absolutely. We didn’t have an election for mayor.”

Although each council member’s vote counts the same, the mayor has the bully pulpit and is the city’s chief cheerleader, lead diplomat, the face and voice of the city. Council members generally devote anywhere from five to 10 hours a week to city business. (Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell probably did triple that out of her love for the city and its citizens. And she had the time.)

However, the mayor’s job demands more time. Outgoing Mayor Karen Alexander said she attended over 1,200 events in two years and spent 60 to 70 hours per week on the job. Whether 60 hours a week, or 30, the candidate who wants that job must have the time and desire to do it.

Hundreds of cities, towns, and counties in North Carolina use the council-manager form of government, but Salisbury is one of very few that does not directly elect its mayor.

Every city similar in size to Salisbury and touching Rowan County elects its mayor separately from its council.

• Kannapolis elects a mayor plus six at-large council members.

• Concord elects a mayor plus a council of seven by district.

• Statesville elects a mayor plus a council of eight, six by wards and two at-large.

• Mooresville elects a mayor plus a council of six, four by wards and two at-large.

• Lexington elects a mayor plus a council of eight, six by wards and two at-large.

• Thomasville elects a mayor plus seven at-large council members.

• Albemarle elects a mayor plus seven at-large council members.

At one of this year’s forums, candidates were asked about our election system. By lottery, I spoke first and suggested that Salisbury elect its mayor separately, elect six council members including four from districts and two at-large, with four-year staggered terms. Eleven of the 13 candidates agreed with that or some variation.

Had the 2017 election picked the top seven, say a mayor plus six members, the council would have three African-Americans (42 percent) and looked more like the city (40 percent African-American).

The new City Council should address this issue immediately. To start the discussion, I’d propose this for 2019:

• Create four wards to reflect the diverse neighborhoods in the city;

• Elect a mayor to a four-year term who would vote only to break ties;

• Elect three council members to four-year terms, two by district and one at-large;

• Elect three council members to two-year terms, two by district and one at-large;

• For the 2019 election only, the mayoral runner-up becomes the mayor pro tem, serving as the two-year at-large term;

• Beginning in 2021, the six-member council chooses the mayor pro tem from among them for a two-year term.

Other options exist. All wards or all at-large or part wards and part at-large. Staggered terms or all elected for two-year terms or all elected for four year terms. Mayor votes or mayor does not vote. Term limits or not.

Let’s elect our mayor directly and make sure all neighborhoods are represented. Let’s start the community discussion and get this done.

Congrats, Al Heggins!

Attorney David Post was recently elected to his second term on Salisbury City Council.

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