A Lumberton City Council of the early 1980s, purely motivated we believe, lobbied for and won approval from the General Assembly for an exception to the way the city could fill vacancies on the council. Instead of by appointment as was done by most local governments, that City Council wanted to fill such vacancies by special election, even if that meant footing the cost.
We believe it was, and remains, a noble gesture. In this county, far too often such vacancies, especially in the judicial system, are decided by a well-choreographed departure followed by an agree-upon appointment, and not by the voters. We don’t have to dwell too long on the potential pitfalls of such appointments, but will simply say we trust the people more than the politicians for such weighty decisions.
But sometimes the best of intentions become entangled with unintended consequences.
Such is the dilemma that the City Council will confront Wednesday when it tries to figure out the best way to fill two seats on the council, the Precinct 7 seat that became vacant with the sudden and tragic passing of Leon Maynor on July 2, and the Precinct 3 seat that will be vacant soon enough as Burnis Wilkins takes a next step toward becoming the county sheriff.
The plan had been for a special election in Precinct 3 that would have been held during the Nov. 6 General Election, therefore calling for minimal additional expense for the city. But city officials this week were told that their initial timeline for that to happen, with Wilkins stepping down in August and filing to begin soon afterward, did not allow for early voting — which did not exist in the early 1980s when the council asked for and received the exemption.
City officials, understandably, would like to fill both seats in a single election as that is the most economical way forward. But Wilkins must first step down for the wheel to begin spinning, and the longer that is delayed, the longer Precinct 7 will be without representation.
Wilkins could step down today, which would allow for filing for both seats to begin next week, providing ample time for early voting for the November General Election. City officials were also talking about the possibility of holding a special election early next year, one that we are told would not require the early voting period.
The obvious downside with a 2019 special election is the extended length of time that Precincts 7 and 3 would be without a representative on the City Council. The good news is that we don’t have a rogue City Council, infested with members who would try to capitalize on the absence of representation for two precincts. As a fun example, we don’t foresee any council members attempting to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a building with limited purpose because a councilman or two who would stand against is absent.
Still, the better alternative for all involved is to hold the special election as quickly as possible, which would be on Nov. 6 in conjunction with the General Election. For that to happen, Wilkins would need to resign quickly and put things in motion.
We believe that is the most likely course. We know Wilkins is reluctant to leave Precinct 3 without a representative, but we also know that his exit from council allows him to turn all of his attention to the challenges that await him as the next county sheriff. They include the worst crime rate in North Carolina, but also the truth that there exists those in lofty positions who will work to try to undermine his efforts.
If you doubt that, you don’t understand Robeson County politics.
But come to think of it: Does anybody?