City Project dispute could ignite local elections

Jun. 07, 2014 @ 03:04 PM

The spirited debate over the future of the City Project and Ignite High Point — and with it, the long-range path of the city’s development — couldn’t come at a more prime time on the political calendar.
In a month, candidates for mayor and the eight seats on High Point City Council will begin filing for office. So any challengers inspired by the recent, passionate debate over the fate of the City Project will have the chance to enter the political arena as candidates. The High Point municipal candidate filing period is July 7-18.
Then in five months, voters will go to the polls to select the mayor, two at-large members of City Council and six ward representatives on council. Given that critics of the current council’s move to reshape the City Project packed a council meeting last Monday night with close to 200 people, the debate is gearing up as an overriding issue in this year’s election season.
“It’s definitely something that has the possibility of becoming the equivalent of a referendum on the direction of city government,” said Matthew DeSantis, professor of political science at Guilford Technical Community College.

Big stakes from passionate debate

The dispute centers on a 7-2 vote last month by council to reshape the City Project and Ignite High Point effort, which has been directed for six years by a nonprofit board of directors who received funding through the city.
The council moved to eliminate the City Project as a city department and transfer the post held by Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe to another part of city government. Councilmembers who support the move say they aren’t trying to derail the City Project’s well-intended aims, but streamline oversight of the effort.
But critics of the council’s changes say shifting the direction of the City Project and Ignite High Point would stall the campaign just as it’s gaining traction in benefiting the city. The City Project was formed as a nonprofit six years ago with its own board of directors and funding from the city.
Because of its specific tax status as a nonprofit, the City Project itself legally can’t get involved in political endorsements or activities, such as recruiting candidates, said board Chairman Richard Wood. But Wood told The High Point Enterprise that he can envision individual supporters of the City Project on their own taking part in campaigns for mayor and council.
“I’m sure it’s going to be one of the things that’s very much talked about,” Wood said. 

Ripple effect on campaign trail

Ward 5 Councilman Jim Davis, who voted for the restructuring of the City Project, said he expects candidates who object to the council’s decisions to emerge in a number — if not majority — of local races this year.
Davis said that he’s not worried about the possible political fallout from the City Project debate in his race. Davis said he holds monthly town halls with constituents — along with Ward 6 Councilman Jason Ewing, who also voted for the City Project reforms.
“We always ask questions. And I run into people at grocery stores, banks or they call me. And my views are what they are telling me,” Davis said. “People on the north end of town are more concerned with the cost of living, the taxes that we pay. They hear talk about dieting Main Street possibly going to cost $12 million. What I hear from people is a more common-sense approach — let’s get our house in order first.”
Ward 4 Councilman Jay Wagner, who was one of the two votes against the City Project restructuring with At-large Councilman Britt Moore, also said he expects the Ignite High Point debate to filter into the campaign season.
“I think this is going to be a big issue in the election coming up,” Wagner said. “There are a lot of folks that are not happy with the new direction that council seems to be taking. I’ve heard different rumblings about folks considering running who were not considering running before as a result of this.”

Nature of city election could amplify issue

The nature of the city municipal election could intensify the role of the City Project dispute in a campaign, DeSantis said.
“Whenever you are looking at local elections, they have a tendency to sometimes to be taken over by one big issue,” the professor said.
Also, because city elections are nonpartisan — meaning the party affiliation of candidates won’t appear on the ballot — issues such as the City Project dispute can become more central to the debate, DeSantis said.
“Single-issue candidates can emerge since you don’t have to worry about running on a party platform,” he said. “What you’re going to end up seeing is people will make this the primary issue they will talk about.”
Another factor that adds to the City Project dispute as an election campaign issue is the background of the people supporting the Ignite High Point effort, DeSantis said.
“They are connected, they are business people, they are philanthropists in the community. These are people who can give money, who can self-fund a candidacy,” he said. “I think it’s a recipe for several people to challenge for city elected spots.”

pjohnson@hpe.com | 888-3528

 

City elections ‘101’
High Point voters will go to the polls Nov. 4 to pick a mayor and all eight members of City Council. All municipal offices in the city are two-year terms. Here’s some background on the election:
• The filing period by candidates for all city offices begins at noon July 7 and concludes at noon July 18. The municipal election is nonpartisan, meaning the party affiliation of the candidates won’t appear on the ballot.
• City residents will pick the mayor, who is voted on by all residents of High Point. All residents also cast ballots to fill the two at-large seats on City Council. In addition, residents of wards across the city each select six ward representatives for council. There is no primary in city municipal races, meaning the candidate who receives the most votes on Election Day wins the office.
• Anyone who wants to cast ballots in the municipal election must be registered to vote by Oct. 10. For more information, call the High Point office of the Guilford County Board of Elections at 641-7895.