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‘Sign wars’ heating up mayoral race

‘Sign wars’ heating up mayoral race
Written by publisher team

Campaign signs asking voters to “re-elect” Ron Niland as mayor of Mount Airy are drawing criticism from one of his opponents. This one was spotted outside a home on West Poplar Street.

Even before the three candidates for Mount Airy mayor start facing off over city government issues, a debate has broken out regarding campaign signs put out by the man now holding that position.

Teresa Lewis, one of Ron Niland’s two opponents for a primary in May, is objecting to wording on the signs which urges voters to “re-elect” as mayor.

Lewis contends Niland has not been elected mayor in the usual manner — with citizens casting ballots at polling sites — but was actually appointed to the municipality’s top office by other council members. This occurred in May of last year after Niland had served as mayor on an interim basis for more than six months following the resignation of David Rowe.

“Several people have mentioned to me that they were not aware that Ron was elected mayor,” Lewis said this week in questioning the sign terminology indicating this.

“Maybe Ron knows something I don’t,” she added. “I just don’t think it’s right.”

Niland contended otherwise when asked to react to Lewis’ complaint.

“My statement would be I was elected by the board,” he said of a 4-0 decision by council members to name him mayor last year. “I feel saying ‘re-elect’ is appropriate.”

Niland believes Lewis is nit-picking with technicalities over something he doesn’t see as a major concern, while also taking aim at her own sign practices.

“I think the bigger issue is people putting signs out in rights of ways,” he said of those promoting Lewis’ candidacy which began appearing well before the candidates’ filing period opened in December and allegedly weren’t permitted.

“She’s got them up all over the city,” Niland said of signs he believes Lewis should remove from improper locations.

Lewis responded by saying she has obtained owners’ permission to place signs outside homes and businesses.

“If mine are in the right of way, so are most of the other people’s,” she commented, in addition to sending photos of such signs located close to public roads.

A matter of “semantics”?

Lewis said she would not have objected to Niland’s signs stating “Keep Ron Niland as Mayor” or something similar, with the “re-elect” reference the problem for her.

She pointed out that signs for another municipal candidate, At-Large Commissioner Joe Zalescik, simply are asking citizens to vote for him as commissioner.

Lewis said she also had such a view while serving as Mount Airy’s at-large commissioner about 12 years ago, when council members chose her to replace Deborah Cochran after Cochran was elected mayor.

“I was never elected, I was appointed.”

Had she chosen to run for the at-large seat later, Lewis said she would not have asked voters to “re-elect me” and is choosing to think Niland’s doing it involves a simple oversight.

“I don’t think he purposely did something that would mislead the people.”

Niland was asked if he ever considered different terminology for his sign.

“To be honest with you, I never even thought about it,” he responded. “I don’t think it’s that big an issue.”

This view is shared by the third person in the Mount Airy mayoral race, present North Ward Commissioner Jon Cawley.

“I can see where voters are questioning the semantics of it,” Cawley said of the wording on Niland’s posters. “But there’s a lot more important things in the world.”

Cawley, who was one of the four commissioners approving Niland’s assumption to the mayor’s position in May 2021, personally has no problem with the use of “re-elect.”

“The board elected him the mayor,” he reasoned, “so he has been elected.”

Both Cawley and Niland believe citizens who have kept up with city government events are aware of everything that has brought Mount Airy to this point as far as who is who and why.

“I think everybody pretty much knows what’s going on,” Niland said.

Cawley believes the “re-elect” reference simply is asking voters are pleased with what’s occurring at City Hall to maintain the status quo.

“It’s not a big deal to me.”

Incumbency can be negative

Niland pointed to another aspect, the idea that being an incumbent — while sometimes giving one an inside track — is not necessarily a good thing.

If citizens are dissatisfied with city government, they are likely to blame present office-holders at election time, he said.

Niland also reminded that he would not be facing the situation of running for mayor had he maintained the post he earlier was elected to, at-large commissioner.

“My belief is that I gave up a safe seat that I could have run for, as commissioner at-large, and still had two years left in my term,” he said. “But I gave that up to run for mayor.”

Niland was elected commissioner in 2019 and had he remained in that position wouldn’t have faced re-election again until 2024 due to a switch from odd to even-year municipal elections adding an extra 12 months to existing officials’ four-year terms.

Sign places

The locating of Teresa Lewis signs in rights of way around town prompted a special announcement from Surry County Director of Elections Michella Huff, according to Niland.

Among other rules cited by Huff in that Jan. 4 message, no political sign shall be permitted in the right of way of a fully controlled access highway, and none shall be closer than three feet from the edge of the pavement of the road.

Also, the permission of any property owner of a residence, business or religious institution fronting the right of way where a sign would be erected is required.

Lewis responded that “no one has told me” about any right of way violations on her part.

“I always step off six feet, which is what I was told by the Board of Elections,” the candidate continued. “And homes and businesses gave me permission.”

Niland hopes more attention can be devoted to key issues as the campaign creeps toward the May 17 primary, from which the two top vote-getters will square off in the general election in November under Mount Airy’s non-partisan system.

“I have tried to run and will run a very positive campaign,” he said.

“And I hope this campaign is about my vision for the city — and not about signs.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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