The expected swearing in of Mount Airy’s next mayor didn’t materialize Thursday night, due to the hospitalization of the man who was elected to that post last month.
“I’ve been advised that Mayor-Elect David Rowe will not be here tonight,” said Otis M. “Bud” Oliver, a retired local judge on hand at Thursday’s council meeting to administer the oath of office to Rowe, and three commissioners re-elected on Nov. 3.
Oliver made that announcement near the beginning of the meeting, before turning the floor over to City Manager Barbara Jones, who read a letter from Rowe to the audience. It was addressed to the citizens of Mount Airy and the honorable commissioners.
“I have looked forward to being mayor of Mount Airy for many, many days, and this night would have been a fitting climax to my dream,” Rowe wrote.
“Because of unforeseen health issues, I will be unable to attend tonight’s meeting,” his letter continued. But the mayor-elect expressed optimism about being able to take on that role soon.
“It has been a battle, but I am improving rapidly and expect to assume full duties as your mayor as soon as I am able,” Rowe wrote. “I continue to look forward to serving the citizens of Mount Airy.”
Neither Rowe’s letter nor the officials present Thursday night disclosed the nature of Rowe’s health issues to those assembled, or how long the mayor-elect has been hospitalized.
Who’s in charge?
The unusual situation with the new mayor being unable to take his oath of office posed a dilemma for the council, as articulated by City Attorney Hugh Campbell.
“He’s not here tonight — he’s here in spirit,” Campbell said of Rowe. “But the question is, who is the mayor?”
The attorney explained that under state law, a candidate is not allowed to assume the duties of a position he or she is elected to until taking the oath of office.
“That will happen in the very near term — it’s just a matter of logistics,” Campbell continued. He said the only requirement is that the oath be administered by an appropriate person, such as a judge, which needn’t occur in a formal setting as was Thursday night’s meeting.
Campbell said this would occur “maybe tomorrow.”
In the meantime, for purposes of Thursday’s meeting, the board had to appoint a temporary chairman, who turned out to be Commissioner Jim Armbrister. He led the session that had begun with Commissioner/Mayor Pro Tem Steve Yokeley — who lost to Rowe in the mayoral race — in charge.
A vote appointing Armbrister to that temporary position was unanimous.
Judge Oliver did swear in commissioners Armbrister, Shirley Brinkley and Dean Brown to new four-year terms during the meeting.
New mayor pro tem
Earlier, along with the oath-taking formalities, there was a reorganizational task to be tackled Thursday night: the election of a mayor pro tem to fill in for the chief executive during his absence. Yokeley held that title for about nine months since Mayor Deborah Cochran resigned with more than two years left in her term, which was the prize in last month’s municipal election.
Armbrister nominated Commissioner Jon Cawley as mayor pro tem, which was seconded by Brown. Cawley was not at the meeting, an absence he had announced at the board’s last meeting.
The resulting vote, however, was not unanimous, with Yokeley the dissenter in a 3-1 decision.
Yokeley would not elaborate on why he voted against Cawley. Cawley and Yokeley have differed on issues at times, including the scope of a controversial redevelopment plan that was the most-contentious issue in the recent campaign season.
“I just don’t want to say anything negative,” Yokeley said. “I just want to keep things positive — hopefully they will stay that way.”
Earlier in the meeting, however, Yokeley had congratulated those who were sworn in and urged that everyone pray for Rowe’s recovery. Yokeley, who was part of a coalition that sought unsuccessfully to unseat Armbrister, Brinkley and Brown while also electing him mayor, said he now was looking forward to trying to work together with the other officials as a team.
The sentiment voiced by Yokeley was echoed by Armbrister, Brinkley and Brown at a point designated during Thursday’s meeting for the newly sworn-in commissioners to offer remarks. This included allusions to the sometimes-bitter campaigning waged during much of this summer and fall, while also urging a spirit of unity.
“I want everyone to know that I am working for the city, and I don’t have any hard feelings for anyone,” Brinkley said, looking out at the sizable audience for the meeting.
“I will try very hard to serve all of you to the best of my abilities,” she pledged.
Armbrister also referred to the hard-fought campaign that some political observers believe divided the city of Mount Airy as it had never been before.
“This has been a tremendous learning curve for everybody,” he said. Yet Armbrister indicated that such conflicts can lead to new knowledge and improved knowledge among those involved which can produce a level of understanding and progress.
Armbrister said officials’ hearts were heavy due to Mayor Rowe not being present Thursday night, and added that he looked forward to having “a complete unit” in place.
Brown also reflected the same tone in his remarks.
“I plan to continue to seek guidance and work hard to bring jobs and industry to our area, and to get our citizens to work together in harmony for the development of our entire city,” he said.
Brown said he will continue to work for and represent all citizens, young and old, and abide by their suggestions as much as possible.
Also Thursday night, the city board:
• Appointed Armbrister to the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, in the wake of Commissioner Cawley’s resignation from that group at the last council meeting on Nov. 19. Requirements for the seven-member redevelopment commission call for it to have two commissioners and five citizens at large. Armbrister had expressed interest in being part of the group that was formed in 2014 to spearhead the revitalization of the Spencer’s Inc. property now owned by the city government
• Voted 4-0 in favor of a five-year contract extension with the Martin Starnes & Associates accounting firm of Hickory to audit the city’s books, at an annual cost in the $30,000 range. That firm was first awarded the local auditing contract in 2011 and the end of the 2014-2015 fiscal year in June represented its fifth year in that role. Local government units are required to have their books audited annually by an independent entity.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.