“Sign Wars” heats up the mayoral race

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Campaign signs urging voters to “re-elect” Ron Niland as mayor of Mount Airy draw criticism from one of his opponents. This was spotted outside a house on West Poplar Street.

Even before the three candidates for Mount Airy’s mayor face each other over city government issues, a debate has erupted over campaign posters for the man who now holds the position.

Teresa Lewis, one of Ron Niland’s two opponents for a May primary, disagrees with the wording on the signs urging voters to “re-elect” him for mayor.

Lewis claims Niland was not elected mayor in the usual way – with citizens voting at polling stations – but was actually appointed to the borough’s supreme office by other councillors. This came in May last year after Niland served on an interim basis for more than six months following David Rowe’s resignation.

“Several people have mentioned to me that they didn’t know Ron was elected mayor,” Lewis said this week while questioning the character terminology that indicates it.

“Maybe Ron knows something I don’t,” she added. “I just don’t think it’s right.”

Niland claimed otherwise when asked to respond to Lewis’s complaint.

“My testimony would be that I was elected by the board,” he said of a 4-0 decision by council members to nominate him mayor last year. “I think saying ‘re-election’ is appropriate.”

Niland thinks Lewis is fussing with technical details about something he doesn’t see as a big problem, while also targeting her own drawing practices.

“I think the bigger problem is people making rights-of-way signals,” he said of those who supported Lewis’ candidacy, which surfaced well before the candidates’ submission deadline in December and was reportedly not approved.

“She put them up all over town,” Niland said of signs he believes Lewis should remove from inappropriate places.

Lewis responded that she had received permission from the owners to put up signs outside of homes and businesses.

“If mine don’t give way, most other people don’t,” she commented, adding photos of such signs posted near public roads.

A question of “semantics”?

Lewis said she hadn’t objected to Niland’s signs reading “Keep Ron Niland as mayor” or anything similar, although the reference to “re-election” was the problem for her.

She pointed out that signs for another municipal nominee, At-Large Commissioner Joe Zalescik, are simply asking citizens to vote for him as commissioner.

Lewis said she also had such a view while serving as Mount Airys general commissioner about 12 years ago, when council members selected her to succeed Deborah Cochran after Cochran was elected mayor.

“I was never elected, I was appointed.”

Had she later decided to run for the vacant seat, Lewis said she would not have asked voters to “re-elect me,” and chooses to believe Niland’s actions involve a simple oversight.

“I don’t think he intentionally did anything that would mislead people.”

Niland was asked if he had ever considered different terminology for his signage.

“To be honest, I never thought about it,” he replied. “I don’t think that’s such a big problem.”

This view is shared by the third person in the running for Mount Airy mayor, current North Ward Commissioner Jon Cawley.

“I can see where voters are questioning the semantics,” Cawley said of the wording on Niland’s posters. “But there are much more important things in the world.”

Cawley, who was one of the four commissioners who approved Niland’s assumption of the mayoral post in May 2021, personally has no problem with the use of “re-election”.

“The board elected him mayor,” he argued, “so he got elected.”

Both Cawley and Niland believe that citizens who have kept abreast of city government events know all that has brought Mount Airy to this point, who is who and why.

“I think everyone pretty much knows what’s going on,” Niland said.

Cawley believes the reference to “re-election” is simply urging voters happy with what’s happening at City Hall to maintain the status quo.

“It’s not a big deal for me.”

Obligation can be negative

Niland pointed out another aspect, the idea that being an incumbent isn’t necessarily a good thing – while sometimes giving you a glimpse inside.

If citizens are unhappy with the city government, they are likely to blame current officials at election time, he said.

Niland also recalled that he would not face the situation of running for mayor if he had retained the post to which he had previously been elected, commissioner-general.

“I think I gave up a secure seat that I could have run for as commissioner general and had two years left in my tenure,” he said. “But I gave that up to run for mayor.”

Niland was elected commissioner in 2019 and if he had remained in that position he would not have been re-elected until 2024 as a switch from odd to even year local elections would have added an additional 12 months to the four-year terms of the existing officers.

sign placements

The location of Teresa Lewis signs in the city prompted a special announcement from Surry County Elections Commissioner Michella Huff, according to Niland.

Among other rules Huff cited in that Jan. 4 message, no political sign may be allowed on the right-of-way of a fully controlled access road, and none may be closer than three feet from the edge of the pavement.

In addition, permission is required from each property owner of a residence, business, or religious establishment in front of the right-of-way where a sign is to be placed.

Lewis replied that “no one has told me anything about right-of-way violations on their part.”

“I always climb 1.80 meters, as the election committee told me,” the candidate continued. “And homes and businesses gave me permission.”

Niland hopes more attention can be paid to key issues as the campaign moves towards the May 17 primary, where the two front-runners will face off in November’s general election under Mount Airy’s bipartisan system.

“I’ve tried to run a very positive campaign and will do so,” he said.

“And I hope this campaign is about my vision for the city – and not about signs.”

Tom Joyce can be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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