Mount Airy’s commissioners agree that the recent departure of Mayor David Rowe has left a huge void behind — but at the same time it’s one they aren’t in a big hurry to fill.
Rowe resigned effective Oct. 8 after serving nearly five years as mayor, a period punctuated by ongoing health problems that eventually forced that move.
Members of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners have expressed sadness about this development while also praising the valiant fight waged by Rowe to complete his present term ending in December 2021.
Such comments were echoed during a council meeting Thursday night, which included discussion on moving forward — when and how the mayoral vacancy should be filled.
That matter was not on the agenda for the meeting, the first held since Rowe’s resignation.
But it was raised by Commissioner Jon Cawley near the end of the session when board members offered remarks on any city government issue which they saw fit.
Cawley indicated that citizens should be provided some idea about how the replacement process will play out — even if no action is planned for the coming weeks. “But if we don’t put it on the agenda, then how do we decide?”
The collective answer from Cawley’s fellow commissioners is that other concerns loom larger. These include proceeding with a list of capital improvements related to major building and equipment needs that have been delayed due to COVID-19.
City officials also are struggling to find extra revenues to pay for those improvements, including the possible seeking of a sales tax increase.
The prevailing opinion of the commissioners Thursday night was that filling the mayor’s vacancy is not a priority at this time, whether appointing someone on an interim basis or waiting until the next election.
“I’d like to see us wait for a while,” Commissioner Marie Wood said, citing the other business on the city government’s plate. “I just don’t think we need to hurry into the process — that’s just my opinion.”
Wood reminded everyone that Mount Airy has a mayor pro tem in place to fulfill the responsibilities of its top elected official — Commissioner Ron Niland, who presided over Thursday night’s meeting as he has for other recent gatherings.
“I agree with Marie that we need to wait,” said Commissioner Steve Yokeley, who as mayor pro tem took over for Mayor Deborah Cochran when she resigned in March 2015 with more than half of her four-year term remaining.
No one was appointed for that vacancy, which Yokeley filled on an interim basis while campaigning for mayor, being defeated by Rowe in the November 2015 election. Rowe won a four-year term in November 2017, which is set to expire in 2021.
“I do like the idea that the mayor needs to be voted on by the citizens,” said Wood, as opposed to any kind of appointment by the commissioners.
A side issue relates to a possible move by Mount Airy officials to raise the local sales tax, now 7 cents per dollar for standard purchases, by a quarter-cent.
This proposal would be accompanied by holding a referendum as soon as possible for citizens to vote on the increase, according to discussion Thursday night. This might result in a special election in the early part of next year — which also could include their choice for mayor.
“It would be a great time to go ahead and have a mayor election at the same time,” Commissioner Tom Koch said of such a referendum.
“So hopefully sometime next year,” Yokeley said regarding the filling of the mayoral vacancy, “not too far into the year.”
City Attorney Hugh Campbell offered a legal opinion Thursday night which indicated that the ball is pretty much in the commissioners’ court concerning the mayor.
“It is up the board to decide the timeline and the procedure,” Campbell said.
In the immediate wake of Rowe’s resignation, the city attorney had released information reflecting state law, including no mandated time frame for filling a vacancy or specific rules about who must be appointed or how they are selected.
However, candidates for consideration may not be discussed in closed sessions.
Appearance group move
The city council did make one appointment decision Thursday night, approving Polly Long for the Mount Airy Appearance Commission.
Long will replace Andrew Barlow, who has resigned from that group.
She was appointed to fill the remainder of Barlow’s term which ends on June 30, 2021.
Long is an instructional specialist in Mount Airy City Schools who has lived here for nearly 50 years.
As it name suggests, the Mount Airy Appearance Commission spearheads various beautification efforts in town. This includes an awards program to recognize business and residential properties that are setting a good example for others through aesthetic or architectural excellence.
The group also sponsors a community tree-lighting program each Christmas.