Over the last year my attention has been drawn to the issue in the City of Hickory involving Ward specific voting versus Modified At-Large voting in relation to representation of the Hickory City Council. When Harry Hipps ran for City Council in 2009, I honestly thought it was to our advantage to run City Wide against the incumbent Jill Patton, because I thought that he stood a better chance of people throughout the city getting tired of what many consider kowtowing to Viewmont interests. Little did I know what we were up against.
I want to preface all of this by saying that I have nothing against Viewmont. This is not about Viewmont. Viewmont is a fine community. I currently work in that section of the City. I was vocal about the upscaling of the area around Lowe’s Home Improvement and I honestly believe that the development in that area has proven beneficial to us all.
The issue that I am addressing is the overall general well being of the City of Hickory. When I look back to that 2009 election, the issue that bothered me most was the ambivalence of the vast majority of the citizens of Hickory. Most of the people did not vote. The turnout ended up being around 8.5% and nearly half of that vote came from the the precincts interwoven with the Viewmont area and Northwest Hickory, while those precincts only represent less than one-third of the city
We are not here to chastise the people of Viewmont for voting. They should be applauded for doing so. What the aim of this discussion is about is to examine why so few people vote in City elections and why those that do are disproportionally weighted towards less than one-third of the City of Hickory.
I remember going to a prospective Candidate forum at the Chamber of Commerce and there was a gentleman from Ridgeview and he kept talking about the fact that we needed to see Ward specific elections… how the people of Ward 4 (Ridgeview’s Ward) kept nominating Larry Pope only to have him defeated in the “General Election,” and how they weren’t having their issues represented. I hadn’t really looked at it from this point of view and I can tell you that most of my compatriots in the room thought this guy was being radical.
When I saw what happened with the City’s Swimming Pools issue, I woke up. I watched how the people on the City Council, basically through every step, railroaded the process to fit their own personal agenda and maybe those of a few supporters who have their ears bent. They didn’t follow proper procedures, then they set up these charettes and surveys and did not listen to the will of the public, they out and out lied to local media outlets, and then through the ring of acrimony that followed they defined this City Government by permanently demolishing the pool sites to try to bring a permanent end to the debate.
Then what followed was the mess over the redrawing of the ward maps. Mayor Wright took it upon himself to let this City be gerrymandered in an attempt to protect the current council. Going back to the 2009 election, the Mayor on several occasions made a point to promote the idea that the Council was “all of one mind.” This was true, with the exception of Alder Z. Anne Hoyle. Wards four and five were the only two legitimate races. Everywhere there was an event you saw how the current council was giddy over Hank, while Z. Anne was left to fend for herself. The current council did everything they could to keep a debate from occurring and the only way to attempt to get a message out would have been to buy expensive advertising on the radio, newspaper, or through telemarketing. And really, how effective is that?
Now we come to a point two years later where the incumbents from wards one, two, and three are running unopposed. In my opinion, this is a culmination of events that has been long in the making. Some of it falls on the current council and their desire for status and maintaining a status quo that will allow them to stay in office until they personally choose to leave; but much of this, I believe, stems from a system that my compatriots associated with the Hickory Hound have studied in association with and through the diligence of the Citizens for Equity in Government.
The Evidence - 1961
In a March 1, 1961 article in the Hickory Daily Record entitled “Changes in Hickory Charter discussed at Kiwanis meet,” we read about a presentation from the late R. Walker Geitner, who at the time was the President of the First National Bank of Catawba County. Mr. Geitner discusses the Charter Revision study that has taken place over the previous two years. It consisted of a five man committee that had been appointed by the Hickory City Council. He talks about how since some of the changes that were recommended were turned down during the February 21, 1961 meeting that his talk might be considered, in part, a eulogy.
It was in this speech that he stated, "A city exists by permission of the State. It is a municipal corporation -- not unlike a private corporation, particularly a public utilities concern. Citizens are stockholders in the municipal corporation and each one has a vote in the Board of Directors -- the City Council."
It was during that February 21, 1961 meeting that the Council approved the “Charter Revisions” that determined that City Council members would serve four year terms.
The committee submitted a report advising that voters in all wards be allowed to vote for candidates in all wards. This way, the speaker said, “the elected man would be responsible to the city-at-large and not just to a small section with no political status.”
The council, nevertheless, voted against the change and retained the old system of letting each ward elect its own alderman. In Stating his opposition to the present ward system, Mr. Geitner stated his personal belief that the needs of a section are also the needs of the whole city. He declared it is now time to do away with sections, as such, and to fight for the good of all citizens.
An article entitled “Hickory Charter Revision discussed for County Bar” from the same day (March 1, 1961) discusses Attorney Young M. Smith’s (another of the committee of five), address to the Catawba County Bar Association. In the article, he mentions that two of the five members of the revision committee were against changing to a “Modified At-Large” system. The two were fearful that if such a system were adopted it would lead to political agreements and maneuvering among leaders of wards. Atty. Smith stated that he was against “Wardism,” but the “Modified At-Large” system would be more harmful than helpful.
In another Hickory Daily Record article dated February 22, 1961, following the February 21, 1961 City Council meeting mentioned above, during which the Charter Revision was discussed, entitled “2 changes Made by Board,” Alderman Hugh Abee let it be known in no uncertain terms that he anticipated “a stink” if the election system were ever changed in Hickory. He charged that Hickory politics would return to a machine system with “Old Hickory” running the Highland and West Hickory Sections. The article goes on to speak about the tense atmosphere that occurred during this meeting. This was the first proposed Charter Revision in the City of Hickory in 48 years.
The Hound: This is Part 1 of this discussion about the issue of Ward Specific elections versus the current Modified At-Large system that we have today. How many people even know that in the City of Hickory, Council Ward Representatives used to be elected by their ward only?
When one reads the quotes from Geitner, Smith, and Abee, they will see that the origins of this issue were never cut and dried. The City Council in 1961 did not want to move in this direction. Sure they were worried about the issue of what Attorney Smith labeled “Wardism” and not looking out for the entire city, but one can also see that Attorney Smith knew that the Modified At-Large system wasn’t the answer and he probably would agree with Alderman Abee that the At-Large system would lead to “Block Voting” and machine politics where the Wards with Power and Influence would empower their will over the less advantaged wards where the working class and poor folks lived. Look at what Mr. Geitner says when he states, “the elected man would be responsible to the city-at-large and not just to a small section with no political status.”
I don’t want to submerge you, the reader, in all of this at once. I will follow up with what happened next and how we got to where the At-Large voting system came into being in the City of Hickory. This is the history of Hickory and some may say that it is ancient history and it is irrelevant to our present circumstances, but I will show you how we ended up on the path that led us to where we are today.
Hickory’s leadership in the 1960s was definitely not "all of one mind" and they seemed to never hold back in voicing their distinctive opinions. The decision to change the voting structure in Hickory was not changed through Unanimous Consent. The similarity that will be shown is that, like many issues we have seen lately with the current Council, there was no integrity of process. The end justified the means. The system changed through political maneuvering and did not allow the people’s will to even be taken into consideration. If the people are going to have their wishes suppressed to appease the desires of a small minority, then why should anyone expect the governing structure to be successful, when it isn’t going to have the support of a citizenry that they constantly undercut.