Stone sponsors bill making city, school board elections partisan

Local officials say they were caught off guard by proposal
Apr. 03, 2013 @ 08:57 AM

The bill introduced Monday to make the Lee County Board of Education and Sanford City Council elections partisan is something N.C. Rep. Mike Stone says “many citizens” have been clamoring for since he took office in 2010.

But it caught those who are subject to it by surprise.

Stone filed House Bill 490, also called Lee County Elections bill, Monday. Depending on when and if it passes, the policy could impact a municipal election scheduled for November. Terms for those elected to the Lee County Board of Education would begin during the first regular meeting in December in the year of the election, instead of the following July. Full text of the draft bill is available online at www.sanfordherald.com.

In a written response to The Herald Tuesday, Stone said Lee County residents have requested this change for many years and after "receiving requests from citizens and doing prudent research on the bill," he felt it was "an appropriate time" to file the proposal.

"Many citizens of Sanford and Lee County asked for this change, and have asked for such a change for years," Stone said, a Republican who represents portions of Lee and Harnett counties. "Elected officials serve at the pleasure of the voters. I am confident that local leaders will embrace the citizens' wishes with a positive attitude."

But local leaders on Tuesday expressed concern that they weren't contacted about the bill before Stone filed it. Input from city council concerning the draft bill was not solicited, said Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive, and she was surprised it was not discussed during a recent trip to the legislature, meant to address concerns and issues that might impact Sanford.

"When I was elected, I didn't run on a party platform," Olive said, a registered Democrat. "I see myself as a mayor of everybody, and I just don't see the need to have partisanship in the municipal and school elections."

A school board can be overrun by partisanship, Olive said, pointing to the nearby Wake County Board of Education that has been plagued by partisan bickering in recent years.

According to the bill, Lee County would join Alleghany, Brunswick, Graham, New Hanover, Vance and Washington counties in having partisan school board elections.

Lee County Board of Education Chairman Dr. Lynn Smith, who's registered as an unaffiliated voter, said he would advocate for the school board elections to remain nonpartisan.

"I would prefer it stay nonpartisan because it is the right thing to do," he said. "There is no compelling reason to make it partisan."

The school board was not made aware of this bill, and Smith said he would have appreciated advance notice of the change.

School board Vice Chairman John Bonardi, a registered Republican, said party politics "had no place in making decisions for educating" Lee County's children.

"I can think of no advantages whatsoever," he said. "Obviously the disadvantages would be party politics would probably control the candidates and the decisions being made."

Politics already come into play during the nonpartisan race, and the bill would only encourage it, Bonardi said.

"I think it is typical of the style of leadership we are under here in North Carolina," he said.

Sanford Mayor Pro Tem Samuel Gaskins said he was very concerned about the potential cost to taxpayers if a primary were needed before the municipal election, which he estimated at $35,000 every two years.

But Stone said the city of Sanford has had an abundance of funds for many years, "effectively overtaxing citizens and businesses."

"Sanford's fund balance is well above what the state of North Carolina requests," Stone said. "If participation is so great that a primary is required, I am certain the council will welcome the increase in participation by citizens in the electoral process."

If there is a compelling reason to make the switch from nonpartisan to partisan elections, Gaskins said he'd be interested in hearing it. However, for a city the size of Sanford, Gaskins said he'd hope anyone running for public office would be more concerned with helping the city residents than participating in partisan policy.

"It makes me really curious as to why we have freshman and sophomore legislators who are deciding how cities ought to be run," said Gaskins, a registered Democrat, "when they should be more focused on how the state should be run."

Lee County Democratic Party Chairman Ann McCracken said the local Democratic party had not requested this change and was not aware of any benefits to the bill.

"I just don't see any advantages," she said. "I'd like to understand why [Stone] is doing this without consulting the agencies involved. With local bills, I didn't think things were done that way."

In a written response, Lee County Republican Party Chairman Charles Staley said he had not contacted Stone about the bill; however, "The Lee County Republican Party welcomes competition at all levels of the political process. Defining the principles that candidates subscribe to helps to better inform the electorate. HB 490 is a great bill for all citizens of Lee County."

Stone, a former Sanford City Council member, said he has always advocated for partisan races.

"With so little information available to voters, at least having a feel for their [political] leanings, via partisan registration, provides more information," he said.

The town of Broadway was not included in the bill, and Stone said he had not received requests by Broadway residents to make the change. However, legislation could be introduced if the residents requested it, he said.

Four city council seats are scheduled to be contested in this year's election, including Olive's Mayoral seat, the Ward 1 and Ward 3 seats (held by Gaskins and J.D. Williams, respectively), and the at-large seat held by L.I. "Poly" Cohen.

Sanford City Council passed a resolution against the proposed bill during its Tuesday night meeting, and Olive said she planned to attend a General Assembly committee meeting concerning the bill today at 1 p.m. in Raleigh.