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City council again dismisses idea of adding new member, focus now on recommendation to delay elections

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — An effort to revisit the idea of expanding the number of seats on the Salisbury City Council did not move forward last week, with those who voted against it citing a lack of sufficient time in receiving public input.

But Mayor Karen Alexander, who joined council member David Post in supporting the effort, said Thursday it’s best the discussion is not being revisited because a new concern has arisen among elections in the state due to the delay of 2020 Census results. Those results are necessary for redistricting efforts this year and ultimately impact municipalities that vote within districts or wards.

Though it was expected for the data to be ready next month, federal officials now expect it in September due to delays associated with the pandemic. The delay prompted Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, on Tuesday to recommend state lawmakers consider legislation that would push back all 2021 municipal elections to 2022 and bump back next year’s primaries from March to May.

Alexander is a member of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, which was presented with this information during a meeting Thursday. She said there are numerous questions and concerns to be addressed and that the information is too new to determine what direction is best. Some questions include whether current elected officials in municipalities would serve an extra year than they were elected to serve and if new primary dates would have to be established for elections where they’re required.

Any changes to the 2021 municipal elections and 2022 primary election would need to be made before the filing period. For municipal elections in Rowan County, filing starts on July 2 and ends on July 16, Alexander said. There are currently four open positions on the Salisbury City Council with two-year terms.

Bell said a delay in Census data affects 62 of the more than 500 municipalities across the state, particularly those where voters cast ballots based on their specific ward or district. Rowan County’s municipal elections do not use wards or districts, said Susan Price, Rowan County Board of Elections senior clerk.

Price said the decision to shift the upcoming elections is ultimately up to state lawmakers, who have the authority to decide when and how local elections are held. Then, the state board of elections will issue guidance to local boards about how the law is implemented and executed.

However, Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, told the Post he doesn’t expect the issue to be addressed anytime soon due to other priorities such as absentee ballot regulations, the state’s budget and COVID-19 funding. Warren is the vice chairman of the Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee in the House.

“We could put it on the back burner since the data doesn’t come out until September,” he said. “What the priority right now is getting our budget issues together and addressing issues related to the economy still being restricted because of the governor’s executive orders.”

If legislation is established, however, he anticipates caucuses on both sides will “begrudgingly come to an agreement” and that it won’t be unanimous.

Warren said in past legislative sessions he considered moving local elections to even-numbered years due to the greater turnout for federal and presidential elections. But some problems with that, he said, include a lengthy ballot, more expensive advertisements and the likelihood smaller races will be overlooked.

Warren added he’s in favor of allowing municipalities that don’t require Census data for district or ward voting, such as Salisbury, to move forward with elections as scheduled. Bell has cited a concern for confusing voters without a consistent model for all municipalities. Warren said he doesn’t understand that concern because only residents of that particular municipality are voting, thus making dates for other elections irrelevant.

Alexander said she would like to see municipalities unaffected by the Census delay move forward, but it’s important to first see the recommendation from the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

“There’s not enough information at this time to know what to do,” she said.

The issue of expanding the number of seats on city council was brought up during the Feb. 16 city council meeting, but it has been a topic of discussion since at least 2019 when an elections committee was formed to explore the idea as well as the idea of separating the mayoral race. Both Post and council member Tamara Sheffield served on that committee, which held multiple public input meetings discussing both topics before it was ultimately decided to only focus on the issue of a separate mayoral race. The measure to separate the races successfully passed in 2019 via a ballot referendum and is in effect for the 2021 municipal election.

City attorney Graham Corriher told council members at a Feb. 16 meeting that it would take a minimum of four meetings to make any changes to the newly elected council or election if a special meeting is not called. Any proposed changes would have to be implemented 90 days before the election, which would be Aug. 4.

Sheffield, Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins and council member Brian Miller all voted against revisiting the issue, primarily citing insufficient time and ability for community discussion amidst virtual meetings.

Both Post and Alexander told the Post Thursday that the three “no” votes surprised them. Post said he asked early in 2020 to put the issue on the agenda for council to discuss, but it was set aside once the pandemic arrived in Rowan County.

Post has been vocal before in his support of expanding the number of seats on the city council, citing Salisbury’s history since the 1960s of only having one Black member on the council at a time.

But Sheffield told the Post Thursday her “no” vote was due to the limited timing and approach to address the issue. She’s not against the idea of adding more seats to the council if that’s what the public ultimately desires, but she said council should “go back and finish the work that started” out of the elections committee that was established.

“I wanted to pick back up where that committee left off,” she said.

Post, however, still believes the council would have sufficient time to have meetings and request public input before making a final decision for the upcoming election.

“I don’t think time is an issue. It’s doable,” Post said. “We should have the courage to make a decision to do it. That’s what we’re elected to do.”

Alexander said it may make sense not to revisit the issue this year with all the other chaos and commotion.

“There may be reason to bring it up to council at a later date if there’s more time available,” she said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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