Plans for replacing Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe were unclear Friday, but one thing everyone agrees on is that his departure has left a huge void in local government which will be difficult to fill.
“I think the city has been lucky to have him,” Commissioner Tom Koch said in reacting to an announcement the day before that Rowe was stepping down from the position he has held since 2015, effective immediately.
“I’ve known him for a lot of years, and he’s a good guy,” added Koch. “I consider him a friend, a good civic volunteer.”
The mayor has steadfastly battled health problems throughout his tenure, after a kidney transplant in 2009, which finally prompted his departure as the city’s top elected official.
“I’m sad for him, because David is a very decent, honorable, good man who loves this community,” said Ron Niland, another member of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and a former city manager here. He recalled that Rowe also served a term as commissioner in the 1990s in addition to once being a member of the Mount Airy Board of Education.
“He’s been a good friend of mine for the 30-plus years I have lived here,” said Niland. “I think his heart was always in the right place.”
Koch echoed that in mentioning the impression Rowe left on him while the two served together on the city school board beginning in the 1990s, particularly one observation about what that job entailed:
“The only question we should ask is, ‘What’s in the best interest of the children?’ and forget everything else,” Koch recalls Rowe always saying when difficult matters arose. “I’ve always remembered that.”
Rowe carried that same philosophy over to his role as mayor, those who worked with him say.
Commissioner Marie Wood said she has been impressed by the qualities Rowe displayed while serving, always maintaining a steady influence in overseeing city government affairs that have been challenging at times.
“Just his demeanor, his calmness, his past history in business,” Wood said in listing those traits, the latter referring to Rowe’s long tenure as an official of a local construction company.
She also mentioned the respectfulness Rowe continually has showed toward others, even during spirited debates among fellow officials at City Hall.
“I think those all are good qualities to have in government,” Wood summarized.
“I’m really going to miss him because he’s so easy to work with, and he listened — and he’s been so good for our city.”
Commissioner Steve Yokeley expressed similar sentiments.
“I’m just very sad and sorry that he had to resign,” said Yokeley, who added that he enjoyed getting to know Rowe better after becoming mayor.
“He’s done everything he could to do the best job possible.”
“David Rowe has been a wonderful example of citizen participation in local government.” Koch emphasized. “I appreciate his sense of steady leadership and his friendship.”
“During his five or six years he’s been the mayor, (these) have probably been the most complicated times I’m aware of since I’ve lived in Mount Airy,” said Commissioner Jon Cawley, who came here in 1990 to pastor a local church.
“He’s led us through the Spencer’s endeavor,” Cawley said, carefully choosing a word to describe efforts to find new occupants for a cluster of buildings formerly used for textile manufacturing which the municipality bought in 2014.
This process has been plagued by numerous controversies surrounding the redevelopment of the property, including the costs posed to city taxpayers and an unsuccessful attempt to locate a Barter Theatre expansion and four-star hotel there.
“And that’s not over,” reminded Cawley, who has been critical of some steps taken. “Through a long process we’re closer than we were,” he said, with “a lot of difficult decisions in front of us.”
Cawley praised Rowe’s leadership during this period.
“He was always trying to do what he thought was best for our city, trying to balance the potential growth with the cost and trying to bring about the best decisions.”
Niland believes the mayor has sought to achieve a consensus among his fellow officials. “Which wasn’t always possible with volatile issues.”
“Mayor Rowe has many great qualities as a leader and has a passion for working with people by sharing ideas and trying to find the best solution to any issue,” City Manager Barbara Jones concurred. “Mayor Rowe is great to work with and has served this city well.”
Jones added: “We will miss working with him and want to extend thanks to him for his dedicated service to this community.”
In light of Thursday’s resignation, Rowe will leave some unfinished business on the table regarding the Spencer’s project.
“I know he was hoping he could serve out his term,” Niland said of a four-year period that ends in 2021.
“He’s just a decent, good guy who loves this community and just couldn’t give it what it needs right now — that’s my take on it,” said Niland, who was quick to note that he will certainly miss Rowe for more than just his city government service.
This includes an issue that normally doesn’t come to the forefront in Mount Airy, but which recently has been a focal point nationally.
“I think one of his legacies is he got really involved in the racial-reconciliation” movement, said Niland, which included Rowe’s formation of a “Hope for the City” team in 2017. Its makeup included 20 members representing different racial and ethnic backgrounds who have met regularly to work toward harmony among all.
“He (the mayor) has shown the willingness to improve race relations,” said Elder Craig Smith, the president of the local NAACP branch who is a member of the Hope for the City team.
“I think even through his illness he has served well,” Smith said of Rowe’s efforts to improve the city both from an equality standpoint and overall.
The NAACP president’s hope is that someone else can pick up where Rowe left off and continue those efforts.
Health problems prevail
There seemed to be a dark cloud circling City Hall, a feeling that Mayor Rowe’s health problems eventually would catch up to him as far as his ability to serve in a demanding position.
“I guess I would say this is a fear I’ve kind of been expecting, because David’s tenure as mayor has always involved a constant battle with his health,” Cawley said of the resignation.
Commissioner Wood agreed in expressing her reaction to the move.
“I was kind of shocked in one respect, because I wasn’t expecting it that (Thursday) morning,” she explained. “But I’m not surprised because of so many health issues.”
“His ability to overcome his health concerns has been remarkable,” Cawley observed. “His courage and his fight have just been impressive.”
This was a fight that Rowe, 76, had been winning since undergoing the kidney transplant in 2009 and enduring various complications afterward, including being subjected to regular dialysis treatments and limited mobility.
“He’s been in the hospital I don’t know how many times since he’s been mayor,” Cawley said. “I know it’s been over a dozen.”
“I feel very sorry for him — he’s really struggled,” said Yokeley.
Despite such problems, Rowe has maintained a great attitude, according to the city manager. “He always comes into the office with a positive word and the willingness to listen,” she remarked.
More recently, Rowe experienced what has been described as “a scare.”
“We about lost him a couple of weeks ago,” Cawley said of a situation in which the mayor “went septic,” a condition typically associated with blood infections.
“He has said to me he was within a few minutes of dying.”
Cawley reflected the views of other city officials in being sorry to see Rowe leave office, though realistic about his condition.
“I consider him a friend, and his health is the most important thing to me now,” he said.
Yokeley says he has admired the way in which Mayor Rowe has tried to keep going, until reaching a point where he had no choice but to step down.
“He’s been looking out for the city and now it’s time to look out for his health,” said Smith, the local NAACP leader.
“There does come a point in life where people have to look out for their personal well-being.”
What happens now?
There was uncertainty among Mount Airy officials Friday about what will transpire with the mayoral vacancy.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell has provided information showing that an opening occurring in an elective office of a city shall be filled by appointment of the council.
The person appointed then serves until the next election, even if the original term would extend beyond that election.
The next municipal election is scheduled in 2021 when Rowe’s unfinished term expires.
The person appointed may run for the seat and be re-elected, but otherwise the appointment will end when someone else is elected to that seat.
State law does not set a time frame for filling a vacancy, the information from Campbell continues.
There also are no specific rules about who must be appointed or how they are selected, but candidates for consideration may not be discussed in closed sessions.
Commissioner Niland, who also is mayor pro tem — which involves filling the role of mayor in the absence of that individual, including presiding over council meetings — was unsure Friday what direction the replacement process might take.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I haven’t given it much thought.”
“I think we need to take a little time and see how things go,” Commissioner Wood suggested.