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City Council’s direction of separate mayoral election unclear

SALISBURY — The Salisbury City Council on Tuesday pushed forward with a proposed changes to the city’s charter to create a separate mayoral election.

If a change is made to the charter, it would not affect the municipal race until 2021.

The council opened a public hearing to get input on its next steps. Some residents said they would like to have a report on the findings of a committee that gathered public input on how the City Council election should be structured.

Others said they want to keep the election the same, maintaining a tradition of the highest voter-getter in the council race becoming mayor. But others supported a separate election for mayor since it would show the true intentions of the candidates. Another said the process seems rushed and the decision should be delayed for more consideration.

The council could add a referendum to the November municipal election to ask voters whether they are in favor of a separate mayoral race. The question wouldn’t enact the change, instead gauging the public’s opinion on the matter. In order to get that question on that ballot, the council must pass a resolution at its Aug. 20 meeting.

The council also can decide to put it on a later ballot, such as the March 2020 primary. But the makeup of the council could change with the Nov. 5 election.

The council could also decide to create a separate mayoral race without the referendum.

After hearing from the public Tuesday, the council decided to keep going with the process but members did not agree on their end goal. They spoke about having a courtesy hearing at the next meeting to hear from more people.

Councilman Brian Miller said the council can keep the train running to provide more time to think about the issue while still having the option to “change trains” later.

Mayor Pro Tem David Post said it was a consistent opinion at previous election committee meetings to let the voters decide by placing the question on the ballot. Post said he told people the council doesn’t have the guts to make the decision itself.

Councilwoman Tamara Sheffield said the two consistent things she heard during the committee meetings was letting the voters decide and keeping the race nonpartisan.

Salisbury resident DeeDee Wright said she would like to hear what the council members support.

Miller said he favors a separate race but could be convinced otherwise. Councilwoman Karen Alexander said she thinks the people should decide, not the five council members.

Salisbury resident Clyde said the council should not waste its time and the public’s time by changing the process.

“I can save you a lot of time by doing nothing,” Clyde said. “That’s what you should do.”

Citizen Gerald Rush also spoke against a separate mayoral race, saying the system is not broken so the council shouldn’t try to fix it. He said previous councils did not have an issue with the tradition when Alexander was voted mayor as were previous mayors Wiley Lash and Paul Woodson. He said it has become an issue because Mayor Al Heggins is African-American.

“It does smack, in my opinion, (of) what is racism,” Rush said.

Post said changing the election has been brought up before, including four years ago when Alexander was chosen mayor, but for some reason this time it has gotten more traction. Post said the duties of the mayor can often be a commitment of 40 hours a week. Alexander nodded.

Heggins expressed concern about a crowded mayoral race and what would happen if 10 people run for mayor. She asked the council to consider a primary option. She also questioned whether the position of the mayor would change.

City Attorney Graham Corriher said the resolution has no language that would change the mayor’s role on the council, just how the mayor is elected.

City Manager Lane Bailey added it would not change the power of the mayor.

Heggins said she would like to see the resolution fleshed out.

Sheffield said she does not want to rush the decision and offered to continue the work of the committee.

Kenneth Stutts said the process is being rushed and suggested the council put the issue on the midterm ballot.

Sheffield said the committee also discussed having staggered terms for council members, creating districts and having a seven-member council. She said at the last meeting, the council did not take time to consider other possible changes to the elections.

Heggins said the issue should be passed back to the committee.

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