Partisan elections become law for city, school board

Jun. 28, 2013 @ 05:03 AM

A bill to make the elections for the city of Sanford and Lee County Board of Education partisan became law this week, prompting disappointment from the impacted boards' leadership. 

House Bill 490, sponsored by Rep. Mike Stone, passed its third reading in the Senate Wednesday afternoon, and Lee County Elections Director Nancy Kimble said she received official notice of the change Thursday morning.

The bill goes into effect immediately, and filing begins at noon July 5 for the Sanford and town of Broadway municipal November elections. A municipal primary, if needed, is scheduled for Sept. 10. Broadway was not included in the bill, and its elections will remain nonpartisan.

Stone did not return phone or email messages Thursday but said previously that he strongly believes in partisan races.

"With so little information available to voters, at least having a feeling for their political leanings, via partisan registration, provides more information," Stone wrote in an April 2 email.

Lee County Board of Education Chairman Dr. Lynn Smith said he was extremely disappointed in the bill's passage.

"There is no reason to politicize those two boards more than they already are," he said.

Vice Chairman John Bonardi agreed, adding that it would cause more polarization within the city council and school board without providing any benefits.

"It is certainly short-sighted and politically motivated by Mr. Stone and his cohorts here in the area," Bonardi said. "I see no advantages, only disadvantages."

Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive said this bill smacks of manipulation, and she was discouraged by people who knew Sanford was facing a "fiscal crisis" but chose to impose the financial burden of funding a primary.

"Of course I am disappointed we are being faced with new elections procedures, and we don't have any time to phase into [them]," she said. "The 2013 municipal elections are on our doorstep."

Sanford Mayor Pro Tem Samuel Gaskins spoke against the bill during a meeting of the Senate State and Local Government Committee Tuesday, citing concerns about the additional cost to the city of funding a primary, if one is needed, and the lack of other partisan municipal elections around the state.

Gaskins said there are five other cities that have partisan elections — Albemarle, Charlotte, Lincolnton, Murphy and Winston-Salem.

"It's hard for me to believe that 99 percent of the municipalities in the state are wrong," he said.

The estimated cost of a primary is $35,000, Gaskins said, and the expense could double to $70,000 if a second primary is needed.

"The number-one thing is this is going to cost a lot of money for a small number of people who vote and who generally are paying attention," he said.

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack also spoke during the committee meeting Tuesday and praised the bill.

"I believe the bill is truly about transparency and full disclosure," he said. "What is good for the goose is good for the gander. The board of commissioners is elected through a partisan election, and it works well to define the candidates by their party, their voting predispositions and their value systems."

The school board is dominated by people who say they are Republicans but do not share the characteristics of most fiscal conservatives, Womack said.

"There are only two non-Republicans, yet [the board] doesn't vote like Republicans or behave like Republicans," he said. "They check their party at the door."

Womack said he didn't believe people understood who they were voting for on the school board, and the electorate is entitled to knowing the candidate's political party and value system before submitting their ballots.