With street-safety issues expected to dominate Thursday night’s Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting, the caution light also was out regarding a proposed change in city election procedure.
It might not have been a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but there was concern about the wholesale scrapping of an existing primary system for municipal elections — among both citizens and board members.
Those concerns emerged as part of a required public hearing on a plan to replace primaries with a non-partisan plurality method that would involve all candidates being on the ballot for a general election, regardless of number.
The present system mandates a primary, or preliminary, election to narrow the field if three or more candidates seek a particular office — with the two top finishers then meeting in the general election. There has been some urgency on the part of city officials to settle on a procedure due to two commissioners and the mayor being up for re-election this year.
But during Thursday’s public hearing on the issue when there seemed to be general support for ending primaries, speakers said that if the non-partisan plurality system is chosen, other changes should be made to ensure democracy.
Bruce Springthorpe, an unsuccessful candidate for at-large commissioner in the last election in 2011, told board members that if the new method is accepted, an option to have a runoff election should be added — which is not included in the proposal under consideration.
That would ensure that a person who wins an election involving a large field of candidates wouldn’t do so with 25 percent of the vote, for example, Springthorpe said. Although cost has been cited as a factor in ending extra elections such as primaries, with a city primary in 2011 having a price tag of $11,236, money shouldn’t be the only issue, Springthorpe said.
“I think the cost of democracy in this case is worthwhile,” he said of a possible runoff. It has been suggested that if the winner fails to gain at least 50 percent of the vote, the second-place finisher have the option of calling for a second election.
John Pritchard, another citizen, also voiced support for a system allowing this.
“The election with runoff(s) is the method most fair to all,” Pritchard said during the hearing in noting that this would favor all candidates including incumbents who could benefit from split votes among opponents. “It’s the right thing to do.”
He added, “In the interest of fairness to voters, I don’t understand why we would not do it that way.”
J.C. Short, another citizen, said the cost savings should be taken even further.
“I understand you’re doing this to save money, and I appreciate it,” said Short. But he added that city elections also should be moved from their present-odd year formats to even years when presidential and other state and national races are decided.
This would avoid expenses of stand-alone municipal elections, Short said. “That way, instead of saving (about) $10,000, you’d save $20,000.”
Board Members Comment
There also seems to be some reluctance among the commissioners about a plurality method without primaries or runoffs, based on comments Thursday night.
Commissioner Dean Brown referred to information previously presented that most North Carolina municipalities operate under the system being proposed. “What others are doing…should not influence what we do,” Brown said. “We should make our own decisions based on what is best for our citizens.”
He also addressed the issues of high costs and low turnout regarding primaries. Saving $10,000 or thereabouts is good, Brown said, but so is ensuring that the democratic process provides ample opportunity for everyone to be elected. “But if we lose some of our guaranteed rights as a citizen, it is not good,” the commissioner said.
“The cost of democracy is not cheap.”
As for the low turnout (less than 6 percent for the 2011 primary) by citizens, “many times if they’re satisfied, they just don’t go vote,” Brown said.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said the emphasis should be on electing the best people for the job and not on saving money. She questioned the difference the non-partisan plurality method might have made in previous municipal elections in worthy people not being able to serve, and said the board should move cautiously.
The commissioners did not vote on the issue Thursday night, and it is not known when a decision will occur.
Pritchard said during the hearing that he believes commissioners Jon Cawley and Steve Yokeley, who plan to seek re-election this year, should abstain from the vote. That would avoid a possible conflict of interest “to whatever extent plurality may favor incumbents,” he explained.
Springthorpe also suggested during the public hearing that having commissioners elected by voters just in their own precincts, rather than citywide, be considered. This would ensure that the “same group of people” does not elect representatives for every part of town, he said.
Later Thursday night, the commissioners unanimously approved two proposals related to streets:
• One involves major changes surrounding the intersection of Pine and Renfro streets at Reeves Community Center to make it safer for pedestrians to cross those streets when entering and leaving the center.
This will involve “backing up” the intersections on each side to provide room for pedestrian traffic signals and other safety features to be installed, including Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) crosswalk improvements. It also will require the moving of utility poles.
The board’s vote calls for requesting assistance from the N.C. Department of Transportation to provide design and other help in making the improvements a reality.
Both the DOT and city will face some expense for them and a representative of that agency is “very receptive toward their end of the costs,” City Manager Barbara Jones said.
There was concern by Commissioner Cawley that pedestrians also need to do their part. “One of the problems is we have people who walk (across streets) when they want to walk,” he said.
Jones said the improvements will include pedestrians being able to push buttons at intersections to ensure safe crossings.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Brown said of the project.
“It’s not an answer to all the problems regarding parking and so forth,” the city manager said of a chronic problem surrounding RCC, “but it will help in the short term.”
• Also, the board gave its support to a project to make a section of Park Drive near Chick-fil-A safer by widening it in sections and installing curbing and guttering. These changes are resulting from increased traffic on Park Drive due to motorists using it as a cut-through to reach Chick-fil-A.
It initially was suggested last fall that the affected section of the street be made one-way, to eliminate a safety hazard with oncoming cars meeting each other on narrow portions of the roadway. This proposal produced opposition from the Park Drive neighborhood.
Other alternatives were studied in the intervening months, leading to the solution approved Thursday night. It has the support of all concerned, including Chick-fil-A, which will foot the bill for the curbing and guttering. The municipal government faces a negligible expense for widening the road where needed and applying asphalt, using state-allocated Powell Bill funds.
“What we’re bringing here tonight has been agreed upon with the neighbors we’ve been talking with,” the city manager said.
In another vote Thursday night, the board voted to spend $28,400 for a required annual audit of the city’s books by the Martin Starnes & Associates accounting firm.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.