Editorial: Council should finally create separate mayoral election

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 7, 2019

In a time when the Salisbury City Council is considering a searing hot, controversial issue, here’s a no-brainer: Voters in Salisbury should elect their mayor in a race separate from the City Council.

And while it’s too late to do it this year (filing for municipal election started Friday) the council should put in place a plan to ensure voters elect a mayor separately in 2021. Most importantly, the change would give Salisbury voters a direct voice in choosing our city’s top elected official.

It’s commonplace across the state, nation and in Rowan County’s municipalities for voters to choose their mayor. Salisbury frequently looks to similarly-sized, nearby cities when considering rules, regulations and best practices. Why should the method by which Salisbury voters elect their mayor be any different?

The tradition in Salisbury has been for voters to elect council members. Then, those council members choose a mayor, deciding based on who receives the most votes. It’s a polite tradition that assumes council members will abide. It also assumes that all council members are able to serve as mayor — a much larger time commitment than a council member. Neither of those make sense.

Lately, the system has produced four mayors in five elections. The top vote-getter and mayor selected in 2017 was Al Heggins. It was Karen Alexander in 2015, Paul Woodson in 2013 and 2011 and Susan Kluttz in 2009.

And Kluttz’s and Alexander’s time on the council are examples of the strange system that Salisbury’s polite formality brings. Both were incumbent mayors who ran for re-election and won but fell short of first place and were not chosen as mayor.

In an editorial after the 2011 election, the Salisbury Post wrote that Woodson was nearly speechless after the final tally came in. He had only intended to stay on the council, not expecting to receive the most votes and beat Kluttz.

The necessity of a separate mayor’s race is not about past, present or future candidates or the projects they plan to pursue. Instead it’s about ensuring voters have a direct voice in who serves as mayor and know candidates are committed to serving in that position.

We think the council will find a broad base of support within the Salisbury city limits for a separate election. Because voters will have a direct voice in who is the face of their city, a majority of council members should support the change as well.

In 2017, shortly after finishing second, Mayor Pro Tem David Post proposed a plan in a Salisbury Post opinion column for creating districts, electing a mayor separately and increasing the number of council members. Later, Councilwoman Tamara Sheffield joined Post on a committee that invited the public to weigh in on a separate mayoral election. But the committee’s work has stalled.

Post, Sheffield and the council at large should push forward with what’s sure to be a non-controversial proposal to create a separate mayor’s race and consider including staggered four-year terms, which would ensure some stability, too.