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Friday, November 11, 2011

1967 - How we got where we are today

The following is a furthering of the discussion of how the City of Hickory came to the point where municipal elections, relating to City Council, were changed from Ward specific to the Modified At-Large system that we have today. Following the 1961 Charter revisions, you have had two municipal elections that have taken place in 1963 and 1965 as we come to a special session, which took place on Monday, March 6, 1967 at 9:00 o’clock a.m.

In Context, let me explain the City representatives at that time. Mayor – Julian Whitener / Ward 1 - Neill Clark Jr. / Ward 2 – Oren Cline / Ward 3 - John Watts / Ward 4 – Mildred Rhyne / Ward 5 - Hugh Abee / Ward 6 – Robert Shores Jr.

Consideration was given to two bills to be introduced to the North Carolina General Assembly to amend the 1961 Charter Revision. The City Attorney read the two bills after which discussion ensued particularly in regard to holding Municipal Elections At-Large.

Alderman Hugh Abee strongly opposed the “at large” elections, stating, “Hickory politics would return to a machine system with “Old Hickory” running the Highland and West Hickory Sections.”

The Mayor read parts of a letter to the Council from the League of Municipalities, which pointed out that 78 out of 106 cities with more than 2,500 populations elected their governing bodies at large, Only Hickory and six others have ward elections such as ours, he added. He pointed out further that it was incumbent upon Council to keep the population within the wards as equal as possible, because of the recent ruling by the Supreme Court in regard to the “one-man, one vote” issue.

Section Four of the document presented to the General Assembly states, “The aldermen to be elected in the year 1967 shall be nominated fro m Wards 4, 5, and 6 and shall initially hold office for a period of 3 years; thereafter they shall be nominated and hold office for a period of four years. The alderman elected in 1968, and every four years thereafter, shall be nominated from Wards 1, 2, and 3. The Mayor shall be elected for a term of three years at the election held in 1967, and thereafter shall be elected for a term of four years.

The Recorded vote shows Mayor Julian Whitener, Alderman Neill W. Clark Jr., Oren L. Cline, Mildred R. Rhyne, and Robert M. Shores Jr. voting aye and Hugh H. Abee and John W. Watts voting no.

Moving forward to the next evening, Tuesday, March 7, 1967, the Mayor remarked to the Council that when the vote was taken on Monday morning on the proposed Bills that were to be introduced into the General Assembly, it was first suggested that each item be taken separately; however, in order to expedite the matter, they were voted on as a whole on first reading. On second thought, it is felt that perhaps it might be better to vote on each item separately on second reading, as when the Bills are presented to the General Assembly, it might be necessary to inform them which of the items were unanimous and which were on split votes.

Alderman Shores moved, seconded by Alderman Cline, that Section 1 of the Bill entitled "An Act to Amend Certain Sections of the Charter of the City of Hickory as Contained in Chapter 323, Session Laws of 1961", relating to candidates being voted on "at large", be approved, and that said proposed Bill be forwarded immediately to the General Assembly.

Upon vote being taken on the motion, the following vote occurred:

Voting Aye: Mayor Julian G. Whitener, Alderman Neill W. Clark, Jr., Alderman Oren L. Cline, Alderman Robert M. Shores , Jr ., Voting Nay: Alderwoman Mildred R. Rhyne, Alderman Hugh H. Abee, Alderman John W. Watts

Whereupon, the Mayor declared the foregoing passed on second and final reading.

Alderwoman Mildred Rhyne stated that at the previous meeting, she did not vote, and she assumed it was counted "yes", but that she would have to vote "no" on the issue because she had been contacted by many people in her ward to do so. She said they have made progress under the ward system. She added that with the recent Court ruling regarding "one-man, one-vote", it may be that in the future there will need to be a change made, but that she was in favor of "crossing that bridge when you came to it". She felt the Aldermen could be of more service to their wards under the present system, not that she or a single one of the other Aldermen are not interested in the City as a whole and have supported all measures for the whole City.

Alderman Abee said he had talked with people throughout the City and in no case has he found anyone who favors the "at large" system.

The Mayor remarked that to him the City of Hickory is a corporation and every citizen a stockholder, and the stockholders should have the right to elect their Board of Directors. As it now stands, only one-sixth of the stockholders have the right to vote on each Alderman. It has been his feeling, without trying to be disagreeable, that this is one of the ways with which to meet the "one-man, one-vote" rule. He felt it was long past due that each citizen have the right to say who serves in each ward.

Alderman Abee remarked that if the matter were put to a vote of the people, he believed the people would vote against it. Alderman Clark said he would have to go along with what 75% of the municipalities in North Carolina are doing.

In a March 6, 1967 article from the Hickory Daily Record entitled “City Charter Changes Sought – At-Large Elections Included,” by Glenn Sumpter, the situation is summarized. The City Council by a 4-2 vote today at a special meeting approved a motion to ask the North Carolina General Assembly to amend the City Charter to provide for at-large election of aldermen.

Under the resolution adopted, the General Assembly will be asked to approve a change that would require Hickory to have six aldermen, one from each of the City’s six wards, however the Aldermen would be elected at large. If more than two candidates announce from any of the six wards, a primary will be held within that ward to select the top two candidates. The top candidate would then be chosen by the voters of the city at large…

The article goes on to state how Aldermen Abee and Watts voted against this amendment to the charter and addresses Mr. Abee’s assertion that it would give a group of politicians a chance to build bloc votes in other wards to defeat the candidate that would best represent a ward.

Another article two months later in the Hickory Daily Record dated May 12, 1967 entitled “Home Rule an Issue - Hickory Charter wins uphill approval, “ states A change in the Hickory Charter making way for the election of Alderman at large has been approved by the General Assembly. The old ward system of electing aldermen will be junked in 1970.

An amendment proposed by Representative J. Reid Poovey, which would have put the charter changes before residents in an election was defeated. Ratification of the Charter Bill is expected today.

Representative Lloyd Mullinax today issued a statement on the Hickory Charter, referring to it as “strictly a local issue,”… “I am a strong advocate of ‘home rule’ in matters of this kind rather than in ‘rule from Raleigh.’ I voted in favor of the State Draft of proposals sent to us by the duly elected body of Hickory and I opposed any changes that the city had not requested for this bill. For me to have done otherwise would have been for me to impose ‘Rule from Raleigh’ on the people rather than to vote ‘rule by local governments.’”

“I regret any controversy that has been generated over this matter, but I do not believe that neither I nor Representative Poovey nor Senator (Adrian) Shuford should try to force our own personal opinions on the good people of Hickory over the objections of the governing body of the city and contrary to their directions"…

The Hound: What is striking about the March 1967 meetings is that a special meeting was called in which this issue was addressed. There was a first reading and it appears that Ms. Rhyne wasn’t prepared for that meeting and so she didn’t vote, as she states, and then she comes back and votes no the next night.

In 1967, you were going to have a municipal election in November, so in brainstorming discussions with others, we have felt that Mayor Whitener wanted this issue pushed through, because he knew that he had the votes with the Council that had been elected in 1965. How could he be sure that he would have the votes after another election? He couldn’t and so he probably thought it was a now or never moment to finish what had been started in 1959, with the commissioning of the committee that had brought forth Charter Revision recommendations in 1961, which included At-Large voting for City Council races. You also need to remember that 1959 was Mayor Whitener’s first year in office, so this system was something that he was very involved in and he had every intention of shepherding through.

In reading this information from 1961, what strikes a chord with me in looking at the purpose of all of this are the words of Mr. Geitner, 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.” And then couple this with what Alderman Abee discusses, when he states, “Hickory politics would return to a machine system with “Old Hickory” running the Highland and West Hickory Sections.”

I believe that the two statements ring true. Mr. Geitner seems to be inferring that whoever is elected is going to be more statesmanlike and represent the best interests of the city as a whole and not necessarily look towards the interests of a smaller section of Hickory that carries no gravitas (stature/importance). Mr. Abee is addressing how Candidates/Representatives of one ward would be making deals with Representatives/Power Brokers of another ward in order to first get elected and then to maintain power, while looking out for the interests of their ward constituents would become a secondary interest.

Alderman Abee, in 1967, gets into the issue of Bloc voting, in which voters from a represented interest (whether common or geographical) can determine the outcome of multiple candidates. He states his firm opposition, “that it would open up ways for a group of politicians to build up bloc votes in other wards to defeat particular candidates.” Alderman Abee was the Alderman who represented West Hickory. I believe he understood the intentions of the “Powers That Be” in Hickory. The intention was to keep the working class people in Hickory in their place. And if any candidate ran, who was going to represent the interests of the working class man, then the people from what Alderman Abee states as “Old Hickory” would make sure that the voting bloc would get the “Radical” defeated.

In the article "1961," Mr. Geitner goes into his summation of the city as a corporation and I agree with what he states, but I think he carries it out to a conclusion that I can’t agree with. I agree that every citizen is a stockholder and deserves a right to choose its Board of Directors, but I don’t think that means that the people of one Ward should be determining who is the representative of another ward.

Why? Because too many shenanigans can take place to manipulate the wards towards the outcome of the so called Board of Directors and unlike with a Business Corporation, we have to abide by structures set forth within the charter granted by the State of North Carolina. Residents aren’t the only shareholders within the City of Hickory. You have many other varied interests within Hickory (such as business and property owners without established residency) that don’t have voting rights. Are they to be granted voting rights? No. You can only vote if you live on a piece of property within the City of Hickory Proper as set forth by Statutes of the North Carolina General Assembly.

The different wards of Hickory have a multitude of socio-economic and cultural differences and this diversity needs to be and should be represented.  Just because someone doesn’t represent a notion, idea, and/or mindset you understand doesn’t mean that it is invalid or radical. Different layers of thought lead to more creativity and thus ingenuity and innovation. Most of you will see past the interjection of the "One Man, One vote" issue. That has to do with apportionment and this issue had nothing to do with apportionment. If we were/are all the same, then why even have wards? They knew this. It was about control.

Look at the vote and it relates to much of what we see today. Wards 3, 4, and 5 voted against the At-Large system. That is Kenworth, Ridgeview, and West Hickory. Wards 1, 2, and 6 along with the Mayor voted for the change. That is Historic Hickory, Northeast Hickory, and Viewmont. Do you see the pattern?

The final thought that I would like to leave you with in relation to this article is the travesty that people weren’t allowed to vote on this issue. Representative Poovey wanted to make that happen, but Representative Mullinax talked about Home Rule. This is a technicality of words, because this wasn’t about changing a budget or some other administrative issue. This was about the structure of how people vote being changed by the people who are recipients of those votes. Hickory’s Charter is its Constitution and it should have been representative of the wishes of the different segments of the city. As you can see it wasn’t a cut and dried issue and thus the citizen’s will should have been taken into consideration after debating the issue thoroughly… Hmmm… The more things change. The more they remain the same!!!

The current City Council could do the right thing and schedule this Special Election and let the citizens debate this issue and have the vote and maybe rekindle some interest in Hickory's politics and governance.

Let the People Vote!!!

But if the Council won’t do the right thing, then please

Sign the Petition!!!


Silence DoGood said...

I completely agree that the petition should go forward. However, I’m left to wonder how successful it would be given the current state of affairs with voter turnout and apathy. To me, this is something that council changed way back when as you pointed out and this is something that council should change back. There shouldn’t be a need for a petition or a referendum. I also wonder, given the state of affairs with block voting, how that might unduly affect the outcome. If the current board had any semblance of political prowess, they would embrace this on the face and look to defeat it with voter turnout, knowing what they know and how that works in their favor. But no, they’d rather butt heads with the people just to show everybody how much power they hold.

I also find the timing to be of particular interest. Just after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Coincidental? I realize that the premise of ‘at large’ was discussed back in 1961, but the rumblings of Civil Rights had already begun in the South as the tenets of Plessy v. Ferguson were falling apart an entire course at a time, rather than a stone at a time.

I still take issue with, albeit 36 years after the fact, with the analogy of government and business, but so be it, I'll use one of my own. That council member is the voter’s (citizen) proxy. While there is an overall genuine concern for the good of the organization, be it a governmental or corporate entity, there is also cause to take differing and varying views into consideration. Think about that for a moment. On command, when one council member agrees, they all agree, or all the board members nod with the CEO. If you want to destroy an organization, put together a controlling authority that rubber stamps and completely agrees with every thing the CEO does and says. Regardless of whether or not they agree or disagree, regardless of how competent they may be in their positions and duties, who among us is perfect and correct all of the time? Those members should be giving perspectives that stand counter to and in direct conflict with the point or proposition on the table. They should be taking into account what their constituents have to say about issues and take that into full weight and consideration. Not that they have to side with a majority or a vocal minority, and stand in contrast to an erroneous notion, but listen to what is said. And it’s really hard to listen with a closed mind, closed ears, and an open mouth. Decisions are only as good as the information upon which they are based. When you only have one perspective or piece of information, how rounded and encompassing is the subsequent decision based upon it?

That is what seems to be missing with those that lead today. Solidarity with this ‘one mind’ perspective stinks of monarchy and representatives of the ‘people’ who are such in name only, paying homage to the ruling monarch. It’s time power reverted back to the people in the same manner it reverted away. Otherwise, well, equilibrium has a way of coming around when people get fed up with their plight.

harryhipps said...

DoGood, you are right, the timing was no coincidence. This is a way to keep the "right" people deciding what is done. And once the insiders get the upper hand, hang on and don't let go. It's ok to hear different perspectives as long as the ruling core has a veto over what happens.
Three precincts have the most weight in Hickory, Neill Clark, St Lukes's and Trinity. So the winning scenario has to be these areas wanting ward elections, or a low turnout in these precincts with a large turnout in the rest of the city or some mix of the above two. It could happen but unless there is some real visibility on this issue it's an uphill climb. Not impossible though. I have to say that the resolution of this issue may tell us more about the soul of Hickory than about anything we have gone through in our recent political life. The ancient curse: May you live in interesting times.