Even before the three candidates for mayor of Mount Airy began to face off on issues of city government, a debate erupted over the campaign signs unfurled by the man who now holds the position.
Teresa Lewis, one of two opponents of Ron Niland for a primary in May, takes issue with wording on signs that urge voters to “re-elect” him as mayor.
Lewis argues that Niland was not elected mayor in the usual way – citizens voting at polling stations – but was in fact appointed to the highest office in the municipality by other members of council. It happened in May last year after Niland served as acting mayor for more than six months following the resignation of David Rowe.
“I’ve had several people mention to me that they didn’t know Ron had been elected mayor,” Lewis said this week, questioning the terminology of signs stating that.
“Maybe Ron knows something I don’t,” she added. “I just don’t think it’s right.”
Niland argued otherwise when asked to respond to Lewis’ complaint.
“My statement would be that I was elected by council,” he said of a 4-0 decision by council members to appoint him mayor last year. “I think saying ‘re-elect’ is appropriate.”
Niland thinks Lewis is picking technical details on something he doesn’t see as a major concern, while also targeting his own signaling practices.
“I think the biggest problem is people putting up signs in the rights of way,” he said of those promoting Lewis’ candidacy who started showing up long before. the opening of the candidate deposit period in December and which would not have been authorized.
“She put them up all over town,” Niland said of the signs he thinks Lewis should remove from inappropriate places.
Lewis responded by saying she had obtained permission from landlords to place signs outside homes and businesses.
“If mine are in the right-of-way, most of the others are too,” she commented, in addition to sending photos of these signs located near public roads.
A question of “semantics”?
Lewis said she wouldn’t have objected to Niland’s signs reading “Keep Ron Niland as mayor” or something similar, with the “re-elected” reference the issue for her.
She pointed out that the signs for another municipal candidate, At-Large Commissioner Joe Zalescik, simply ask citizens to vote for him as commissioner.
Lewis said she also had such a view when she was chief commissioner of Mount Airy 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 later for the seat at large, Lewis said she would not have asked voters to “re-elect me” and chooses to think Niland’s actions involve simple oversight.
“I don’t think he deliberately did anything that would mislead people.”
Niland was asked if he had ever considered a different terminology for his signage.
“To be honest with you, I never even thought about it,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s such a big deal.”
That view is shared by the third person in the Mount Airy mayoral race, current North Ward Commissioner Jon Cawley.
“I can see where voters are questioning the semantics of this one,” Cawley said of the wording of Niland’s posters. “But there are many more important things in the world.”
Cawley, who was one of four commissioners to approve Niland’s run for mayor in May 2021, personally has no problem with the use of “re-election.”
“The council elected him mayor,” he reasoned, “so he was elected.”
Cawley and Niland believe that citizens who have followed the events of the city government are aware of all that has brought Mount Airy to this point in terms of who is who and why.
“I think everyone pretty much knows what’s going on,” Niland said.
Cawley believes the “re-election” reference is simply asking voters who are happy with what’s happening at City Hall to maintain the status quo.
“It doesn’t matter to me.”
Occupation can be negative
Niland pointed to another aspect, the idea that being a starter – while sometimes giving an inside track – isn’t necessarily a good thing.
If citizens are unhappy with city government, they are likely to blame current office holders at election time, he said.
Niland also recalled that he would not be faced with the situation of running for mayor if he had kept the post to which he had been elected earlier, commissioner general.
“I believe I gave up a safe seat for which I could have stood, as commissioner-general, and I 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 if he had remained in this position, he would not have been re-elected until 2024 due to the change from odd municipal elections to even municipal elections adding an additional 12 months to the four-year terms of office. existing officials.
The location of the Teresa Lewis signs in the rights of way around town prompted a special announcement from Surry County Electoral Officer Michella Huff, according to Niland.
Among other rules cited by Huff in that Jan. 4 post, no political signs will be permitted within the right-of-way of a fully controlled-access highway, and none must be within three feet of the curb edge of the road. .
In addition, the authorization of any owner of a residence, a business or a religious institution overlooking the right-of-way where a sign would be erected is required.
Lewis replied that “nobody has spoken to me” about any violation of the right of way on his part.
“I always go down six feet, that’s what the Board of Elections told me,” the candidate continued. “And homes and businesses gave me permission.”
Niland hopes greater attention can be given to key issues as the campaign moves towards the May 17 primary, from which the two main voters will face each other in November’s general election under the nonpartisan system. of Mount Airy.
“I tried to show up and I will run a very positive campaign,” he said.
“And I hope this campaign is about my vision for the city – not billboards.”