After months of criticism about the city’s primary election system, Mount Airy officials agreed Thursday afternoon that it isn’t so bad after all — considering the alternatives.
“I’m in favor of leaving it like it is,” Commissioner Scott Graham said in summing up the general sentiment of the city council.
A proposal had been pending before before the board of commissioners to amend the city charter by switching Mount Airy to the non-partisan plurality system. Under that method, there are no primaries and all those who file to run for a particular office meet in a general election regardless of number.
Under the present setup, a primary is required when three or more candidates seek a seat, with the two top finishers squaring off in the general election.
The non-partisan plurality method was lambasted last month at a public hearing regarding the charter change, with speakers saying it could allow someone among a large field of candidates to be elected by a small percentage of voters. This was condemned as giving an edge to incumbents.
Citizens said during the hearing said that if the new method were approved, a runoff should be allowed in cases in which the winner did not capture a clear-cut majority. It is thought that adding a runoff would create a certain “passion” and voter interest surrounding the impending showdown.
Concerns also emerged from the board after the hearing about implementing a system that might undermine democracy.
This led to the commissioners addressing the issue Thursday afternoon for the final time. After having digesting all the comments and listening to one speaker from the February hearing say during a public forum that he now doesn’t believe any change should be made, that’s what occurred.
“I believe we need to leave it like it is,” agreed Commissioner Dean Brown, who responded to a motivating factor for the proposal that the primary system be scrapped — the roughly $10,000 expense of each of those preliminary elections.
“The cost of democracy is not cheap, but we do have it,” Brown said of the existing arrangement.
And too much shouldn’t be read into the fact that the primaries historically draw low turnouts, which can be due to weather or the fact voters are content with the status quo, based on Thursday’s discussion.
“I don’t think we ought to start tinkering around, playing around, with something that’s worked for many years,” Brown said.
It was pointed out at the meeting that without the present system, Deborah Cochran wouldn’t have been elected as a commissioner in 2007 or as mayor two years later. That’s because Cochran lost a primary both times only to win head-to-head competition in the general election.
Steve Yokeley, another board member, also said Thursday that adopting the non-partisan plurality method and adding a runoff wouldn’t cure the low-turnout problem. This would require holding the general election in October and the potential runoff in November when general elections normally are conducted.
“I’m not sure we would get a big turnout, either for the general election or the runoff,” Yokeley said.
“I think it’s serving us all right, the way it is now,” Commissioner Jon Cawley commented.
Both Cawley and Yokeley are facing re-election this year, as is Mayor Cochran.
But Yokeley said Thursday that he was prepared to vote on the issue, despite a request last month that he abstain from that due to having a direct stake in the upcoming election. Yokeley said that under state law, a board member must vote on issues unless some financial incentive is involved for him or her.
“The state makes it clear,” Yokeley said of that requirement.
As it turned out, no vote was needed, since City Attorney Hugh Campbell advised the board that it could simply let the non-partisan plurality proposal die for lack of a motion and the primary system would be retained automatically.
“I was in a primary and it’s not that bad,” Commissioner Graham said toward the end of the discussion.
“You won!” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who was seated beside Graham, responded good-naturedly while grabbing his arm.
Also during Thursday afternoon’s meeting, the Mount Airy commissioners:
• Voted unanimously to send a resolution to Gov. Pat McCrory asking that he lower the state’s gas tax, which was prepared at the request of Commissioner Brinkley.
“I feel like economic development is what we’re pushing,” Brinkley explained regarding the fact that North Carolina’s fuel tax is much higher than neighboring states and is hurting the state competitively.
North Carolina drivers now pay 37.5 cents per gallon in state excise taxes, compared to 17.5 cents in Virginia and 16 cents in South Carolina.
Brinkley said a resolution from a small municipality might not mean much, but could provide a spark for change.
“Somebody’s got to start somewhere, so why not start here in Mount Airy?” she said.
“I’m asking that we do it — you can’t lose anything,” she told fellow commissioners in urging the approval of the resolution, which they did.
• Took action directing the city clerk to investigate a petition for annexation of a half-acre site in the 100-block of Avondale Road at Greenhill Road. It is near U.S. 52 in the northern part of the city.
Along with annexation, property owner Jack Snow is requesting that the zoning of the vacant site be changed from its present residential classification to B-4 (Highway Business).
The annexation and rezoning are sought in order to sell the site as a commercial property due to its limitations for use as a residential location, city documents state.
One citizen who spoke during Thursday afternoon’s public forum, who lives in the affected area, said he was concerned about a business such as a convenience store being located there and causing trash or other problems for the adjoining neighborhood. He asked the board “to consider the overall ramifications” of the request.
• Voted to reappoint J.T. Palmer to a new three-year term on the Mount Airy ABC Board. Palmer’s present term expired Thursday.
“They all do a fabulous job on the ABC Board,” Mayor Cochran said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.