Charter change raises questions from Norwood residents

Published 8:12 am Friday, June 15, 2018

By Toby Thorpe, for the SNAP

Although a public hearing on the town’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget was the primary agenda item, discussion of a resolution that would support changes to the town’s charter stole the spotlight at Monday’s Norwood Board of Commissioners meeting.
HB 1091, introduced by North Carolina 67th House District Rep. Justin Burr, would reduce the size of the town’s commissioners from five members to four (not counting the mayor), would give a vote on all matters to the mayor (who currently only votes to break a tie) and would change the town’s voting dates to coincide with regular national elections.
A gallery of 22 was present at the beginning of the meeting, which opened with a public hearing on the town’s budget. Only one question pertaining to the budget was addressed, an inquiry as to whether the budget would be adopted at the Monday meeting, or at the board’s next regular scheduled meeting on June 18.
“Tonight is a hearing,” explained Mayor Pro Tem Linda Campbell, “and we hope to adopt the budget on June 18.”
With no further comments offered on the budget, the public hearing was closed and the board moved into discussion on the proposed resolution, which was read by Campbell.
“Why are we taking someone’s voice away by cutting the size of the board?” asked Commissioner James Lilly.
Campbell, along with Commissioner Robbie Cohen, responded that while there would be one less commissioner, there would be the same number of voting members.
Concerns as to the process in case of a tie vote were expressed by Bill Johnson.
“If the mayor gets a vote, how do you break a 2-2 tie if someone is absent?” he asked.
Campbell responded that the current town charter states that an absent member’s vote is an automatic “yes”, which Johnson questioned.
“I don’t believe that’s right,” he said, and asked that this be checked.
Former Commissioner Harold Thompson questioned whether a change is needed, as well as the procedure which led to the introduction of HB 1091 prior to any local public notification or debate.
“Why was a public hearing not held on this?” he asked. “And how does this proposed change better serve the people of Norwood as opposed to the current setup? You are decreasing opportunities for citizens to serve. And it could be argued that having a vote could give the mayor too much power.”
Thompson went on to say, “I feel the current structure is good…it provides a system of checks and balances similar to that of the executive branch and legislative branch of the federal government.”
Dwight Smith, a former commissioner, mayor and town administrator, recognized the difficult task performed by the board, but also expressed his belief that a change in the charter would be counterproductive.
“Government is a difficult thing…especially local government,” said Smith. “Norwood’s charter was adopted in 1881, and it has served the town well ever since. So I don’t understand the need to change now.”
Smith expressed particular concern that a reduction in the size of the board would lead to a lack of representation for some of the town’s citizens.
“By eliminating a commissioner, you will be reducing representation by 18 to 20 percent,” he said. “To make good decisions, a governing body needs all the input it can get. Furthermore, this proposal could decrease the opportunity for minority representation on the board.”
In closing, Smith urged the commissioners to give additional consideration to the proposal rather than moving too quickly.
“This needs to be given more thought,” he said. “I do respect your opinions…so please respect ours.”
Campbell stated that reducing the size of the board would help in finding people willing to serve.
“It’s hard to find people who want to serve as a mayor or commissioner and come up here to meet twice a month. There is no pay, yet you spend hours in the week having to constantly handle phone calls and other town business on your own time. And people are real quick to sit back and talk about you and what they can do and how much better they can do it. But we haven’t had anybody since 2016 banging down the door saying ‘I want to be mayor. ’
“So we talked about this,” added Campbell.
“We have five of us and this is working. In the past, the mayor ran the meeting, and that’s all they did. And it’s hard to find someone out there in the public who wants to just sit there and run the meeting…the last one quit,” she said, indicating former Mayor Beverly Johnson, who was in attendance.
Campbell went on, “I feel real strongly about this. We asked Jim (Phillips, town attorney) to draw up the resolution, and we thought this would be the fairest way to do this. I don’t feel like we are trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes or do anything in secret. Several of us have talked to Justin (Burr) individually and told him we like how this is working (operating with four commissioners plus a mayor), and we finally decided that it’s time to bring it up.”
Cohen weighed in on the debate, noting he had talked with Smith earlier.
“I’ve talked to Dwight about this, and we agree on all but one thing, and that’s the effect that a reduction would have in representing minorities,” he said.
“But,” Cohen continued, “why should the mayor do all the work he or she does and not get a vote? I feel like the mayor needs a voice.”
Former Mayor Larry McMahon again questioned the order in which the legislation and resolution came about.
“Tell me how you came to this decision?” he said. “You’re doing the resolution tonight, but Justin Burr introduced this bill two weeks ago. How do you do that? Normally you have a public hearing, you vote on it, and then you send a resolution.”
“We don’t have to do a public hearing for this,” replied Campbell. “The election is coming up this fall, so now is the time to make the changes that we need.”
Beverly Johnson, who served as mayor before resigning in 2016, then questioned why a replacement was not appointed (as is provided in the town charter), upon her resignation.
“You could have appointed a mayor when I left, but you’ve went two years without one,” she said. “You can hash out the mayor, you can say I did nothing, but you know why I left.”
“We could have appointed Jesus Christ himself to be the mayor and it wouldn’t have been good enough,” replied Campbell. “The whole town would have blasted us, saying ‘we didn’t get the right to vote on our mayor,’” noting that Cohen would remember the discussion in the meeting.
Cohen agreed with Campbell’s assessment to a point.
“I didn’t say it like that,” he said, “but I did say the people need to vote on the mayor.”
Johnson went on to state that others outside the Norwood town government had sought as early as 2015 to change the town’s charter.
“In January 2015, Justin Burr, Joseph Burleson and Gene McIntyre walked into City Hall and asked for the charter,” Johnson said. “They tried to get it changed then, and there was a good group of citizens who came out and spoke in opposition to changing it. So why change it now? You at least need to put it out to the public.”
Thompson asked the commissioners, “You didn’t appoint a mayor, but you did appoint two commissioners. What is the difference in appointing a commissioner to complete a term and appointing a mayor to complete a term? What is the difference? What was the logic in that?”
“That’s a fair question,” responded Cohen.
“I asked around to a number of people about serving,” said Campbell.
“Would you mind sharing those names with me?” asked Thompson.
“I don’t remember them right now, Harold,” replied Campbell.
Cohen posed a question to the four former Norwood mayors (Smith, McMahon, Johnson and Harry Beeker) in attendance at the meeting.
“How did it feel to run a meeting knowing you had no vote?” he asked.
“I was never mayor,” said Thompson, who had once run for mayor, “but I would have worked just as hard as if I’d had one. Past mayors and commissioners have brought Norwood a long way with the charter just the way it is.”
“But we don’t know that changing it would not work, either,” replied Campbell.
“I was mayor for 14 years,” Smith said. “And as mayor, you work to try and keep the commissioners on path. I thought it was pretty neat to be neutral; you could see issues coming and work with the board to handle them. Plus, the mayor has a large responsibility in representing the town at special events and other affairs, like meetings with industry and new businesses.”
Beeker, who served as mayor for two years and commissioner for nine, agreed with Smith.
“I never wanted a vote,” he said. “I represented the people. I wanted to be in the middle. I was the executive officer, the CEO. The mayor is your CEO. The CEO doesn’t vote, the board of directors, which is the commissioners, does. The mayor needs to get the commissioners on his side if there is something he wants to do.”
Beeker also expressed his opposition to changing town elections to coincide with presidential voting.
“What will be going on in this country in 2020 with the presidential election? We will get lost here in Norwood trying to elect a mayor,” he said. “We don’t need to be voting on town offices in a presidential year.”
In closing, Beeker spoke bluntly on two matters.
“I know Mr. (Justin) Burr quite well. He has helped this town in a number of ways, and I respect him,” he said, “but his time is gone and he needs to move over and get out of the way.”
“And Mrs. Campbell, if you want a vote,” said Beeker, “be a commissioner…if you want to be mayor, be mayor and be our executive officer.”
Commissioner Wes Hartsell gave his views on the issues.
“Long term, this is not going to make a hill of beans one way or the other,” he said. “There will still be five voting people representing this town, so representation is really not changing.
“And as for the timing, I disagree wholeheartedly, because I see so many times that in off-year elections, people get elected mainly because there are people who don’t get out and vote. In a presidential year, you are going to get a lot more people involved.”
Eddie Schrum was the only citizen present to express support of changing the town’s charter.
“I agree that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ ” said Schrum. “But you should have a vote,” he said, referring to Campbell.
Schrum also spoke in support of moving town elections to coincide with presidential voting years, and gave a challenge to citizens who feel they could improve on the job being done by the current commission.
“There will be more people voting in a presidential year,” he said. “Yes, it’s going to be a bigger ballot, but you’re going to have a bigger turnout, too.
“And as was said earlier, we don’t have people knocking the door down wanting to serve. So if anybody can do a better job than what this board’s doing, they need to step up.”
Hartsell then moved, seconded by Commissioner Betty O’Neal, to approve the resolution. The vote was 3-1 in favor, with Lilly in opposition.
“This is a resolution that we will send,” Campbell announced. “It is not effective until it passes through both the House and the Senate. We are showing them that this is what we would like to see happen.”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.