Commissioners weren’t happy about it, and one of them voted against it, but in a special meeting on Aug. 6 Swansboro Board of Commissioners voted to approve a resolution calling for a special election on Nov. 5.

The special election – which will run along with the regular biennial municipal election – is required to fill the vacancy that was created when Commissioner Angela Clinton resigned in 2018. Commissioner Phil Keagy was appointed to fill out the first half of Clinton’s term, which runs through the end of 2019.

Under normal circumstances, the special election-filing period would have run along with the filing period for the regular election. But this year was not normal and no filing for the special election was scheduled.

As a result, a special filing period will have to be scheduled, a task which falls to the Onslow County Board of Elections, according to Jason Dedmond, Onslow County Board of Elections director.

“My board has to set the filing period and that will be for five days,” he said. That will likely be set at the Aug. 20 board of elections meeting.

Town officials expressed extreme disappointment with the fact that the six candidates who have filed will not be allowed to run for the Clinton-Keagy vacancy.

“Nobody who has filed for the three open seats can file,” Dedmond said, “I don’t know of any way to do it.”

Cliff Parson, town attorney, confirmed that. “They can’t run. You have no choice in this.”

Mayor John Davis said he was saddened by the situation.

“That said, there is not a whole lot that can be remedied,” he told commissioners at the special meeting. “We have no choice but to have the special election.”

Commissioner Frank Tursi made it clear the special election is not the issue.

“The issue here is the timing,” he said, and the lack of advance notice is unfair to the candidates who have filed.

“This is a choice they should have had,” Tursi, who is running for re-election, said. “It’s terribly unfair to those who filed and it’s unfair to the people of Swansboro.”

Without casting blame on anyone, Tursi said, “This was terribly mishandled and has resulted in an injustice to the voters.”

Commissioner Roy Herrick had a simple question, “How did this happen?”

Paula Webb, assistant town manager and town clerk, said that she notified the board of elections in January of the need for the fourth seat to be filled. At the time, Rose Whitehurst was the director.

“They said noting at the time about a special election,” Webb told the board.

Herrick pointed out that when Keagy was appointed to the seat in August 2018, it was with the understanding that filling the final two years of the vacancy would be left to the voters. 

“We (decided) that a year ago,” he said. “That wasn’t conveyed to the board of elections?

“We have ended up with an open lane to the board. It might have been handled differently.”

Dedmond said that Whitehurst stepped down from the post in early April and that he took the job of director on May 28. It should also be noted that Scott Chase, town manager, resigned his Swansboro job in January and that Jon Barlow served as interim manager from that point through most of June.

Webb, speaking about Dedmond, said, “He doesn’t appear to have any knowledge of elections at all.”

Davis continued to press the issue.

“I’m frustrated as well,” he said. “We seem to find ourselves … tripping on ourselves.” Looking to the staff table, Davis said, “I charge you guys, continue to improve our process.”

On a question from Davis, Parson said the special election must take place. The board could not appoint someone to fill the vacancy.

“Once you appointed Phil just through the election you lost that option,” Parson said.

Commissioner Brent Hatlestad, who has not filed for re-election, indicated he is unhappy with the state’s elections laws.

“I do not have a dog in the hunt, I am not running for another term,” he said. Then, he added, “ But I am hard-pressed to think that the state of North Carolina would have a problem with what we want to do,” indicating that the filing should be open to the six candidates on record. “I will not be voting for the resolution.”

The resolution was approved 4-1, with Hatlestad voting against.

Dedmond said he expects the county board to move quickly to settle the filing period because the state is urging it on.

He also said that he has looked into a couple of alternatives to fill the seat. One suggestion was that the fourth-place finisher could take the vacant seat. That is not possible. The other is that a filed candidate could mount a write-in campaign. That appears to be possible.

However, he has to wait on getting a definitive ruling, “as there is a special election going on right now.”

“The state board may not respond to my questions about November’s election until it has dealt with all Sept. 10 election questions,” he said.

The Sept. 10 election is to settle a U.S. House District seat.

“The whole thing is unfortunate,” Dedmond said of the Swansboro issues. “I feel bad for the three who won’t win.”

He also said he has talked to state elections officials about the mishandling of this special election.

“They said you have to communicate,” Dedmond said was the response.

Filing for municipal office ended on July 19 with six men signing up to run for three seats, but not the partial term.

Swansboro employs a five-commissioner system with terms staggered. Under normal circumstances, three commissioners are elected every two years with the top two finishers serving four-year terms and the candidate finishing third serving a two-year term. This allows for voters to choose a majority of the board every election cycle.

The mayor serves a four-year term but only has a vote in the case of tie. The current mayor’s term ends in 2021.

Clinton’s resignation came very early in her four-year term. Elected in November 2017, Clinton resigned about eight months later citing a “family health situation.”

Keagy was appointed to replace her, with the stipulation that he would serve only through the swearing in of the 2019 election winners.

State statutes allow for, and require, a mid-term election in cases like this, absent a town charter superseding the state statute. Swansboro’s charter speaks to the issue of vacancies and appointments and does allow the commissioners to appoint a replacement “for the remainder of the term.”

However it was Clinton’s wish that the people have the option of voting on her replacement at the next –November 2019 – election. The town commissioners chose to respect that wish, according to Parson.

The North Carolina General Statute on Vacancies states: “A vacancy that occurs in an elective office of a city shall be filled by appointment of the city council. If the term of the office expires immediately following the next regular city election, or if the next regular city election will be held within 90 days after the vacancy occurs, the person appointed to fill the vacancy shall serve the remainder of the unexpired term. Otherwise, a successor shall be elected at the next regularly scheduled city election that is held more than 90 days after the vacancy occurs, and the person appointed to fill the vacancy shall serve only until the elected successor takes office.”

“This is what allowed the board to choose which method they would follow,” Parson explained. He cited the North Carolina law that states: “When a procedure that purports to prescribe all acts necessary for the performance or execution of any power, duty, function, privilege, or immunity is provided by both a general law and a city charter, the two procedures may be used as alternatives, and a city may elect to follow either one.”

Parson then said, “Here, our charter gave us one option – filling for the remainder of Angela’s four-year term – while the state statute gave us the other – filling until the next regular election.”

The six candidates who have filed include incumbents Tursi and Herrick. They will join Jeffrey Conaway, Laurent Meilleur, Harry “PJ” Pugliese and Jerry Seddon on the ballot.

The top two finishers will serve four-year terms and the candidate coming in third-place will serve for two years.

In addition to Herrick, Keagy and Tursi, Hatlestad’s two-year term will come to an end.

All of the six candidates expressed displeasure with how the special filing and special election have been handled.

“I believe the six candidates should have had the same choice as every other resident,” Conaway said. “We did not have a choice nor are we allowed to pull out of the regular election to file for the special. I also think this will taint the results because a select few are banned from filing.”

Herrick expressed extreme disappointment.

“As a candidate … I did not know the actual structure of the election when I filed,” he said. “We were led to believe by all parties that the election would be for four positions, two for four years and two for two years. Only after the filing period was over and the period to withdraw was over were we told, ‘Oops, that is not the way it will be.’ I find that disheartening.”

Meilleur said it is the voters being harmed.

“Rather than voting for the candidates who submitted their names per registration guidelines, voters will be faced with choosing a fourth seat from candidates that didn’t show the initiative to run earlier, a ‘second string’ if you will,” he said. “All of this is due to not thinking things through or questioning how the election for the open seat would work.”

Meilleur also questioned the process to appoint a replacement when a commissioner resigns or can no longer hold office.

“I would suggest that the candidate who received the next highest number of votes be assigned to the open seat, as that would better align with the voting public’s wishes,” he said. That did not happen in the case of Angela Clinton, although the fourth-place finisher, Larry Philpott, was nominated.

“When Ms. Clinton resigned, Commissioner Pat Turner asked that Phil Keagy, who didn’t run in the last election, be appointed and Roy Herrick and Mayor Davis voted to have him join the board. This, in my opinion, created a voting block … that overwhelmed the two remaining independent commissioners and led to what I believe were poor choices for development approvals, budget shortcomings, and arguably the resignation of some extremely talented town employees.”

Meilleur also questioned the openness of the decision that allowed Keagy to assume a seat at the board table. “It seemed clear to me, as an observer of the meeting, that Pat, Roy and John had collaborated ahead of time.”

Pugliese called the matter unfortunate.

“To keep this process as fair as possible it would have been nice for the six of us to have the opportunity to re-file,” he said. “Personally my goals and ambitions have always been to run for a four-year seat. I think we have some really good candidates running and I’m anxious to see who files for the special election.”

Seddon said the fact that the six candidates are not allowed to compete for the fourth seat is disappointing.

“If you consider the probability that the two incumbents get re-elected, that leaves four of us competing for one seat,” he noted. “I feel that it is unfair to the candidates and the citizens. Had I known that there was going to be a special election, I may have waited to file for that one so the field would not be as crowded. This special election snafu will certainly have an effect on the outcome of the primary election. It will ‘water down’ the votes and will most likely elect one of us who may not be the citizen favorite.”

Tursi reiterated the point he made at the board meeting that his issue is with the timing.

“The decision by the county and state boards of election should have been made months ago, certainly before the filing period closed,” he said. “I’m not assigning blame because I’m not familiar enough with the internal election process. But someone screwed up.

“By changing the rules after the filing period, we’re left with a very unfair situation. It’s unfair to the six candidates who did file because they should have been allowed to choose which seat they wanted to run for. The election boards decided, though, that those who have already filed can’t change their filing status. Ultimately, the voters may be most affected depending on how many people file to run for Angela’s seat. If one or two candidates file, voters will have no or very little choice.”

Election Day is Nov. 5 but registered voters will have the opportunity to vote in advance of that day.

According to information provided by the board of elections, deadlines for the upcoming municipal elections are:

• Filing for office began July 5 and ended July 19.

• Absentee ballots will be available beginning Oct. 4. Oct. 29 is the last day to request an absentee ballot, by 5 p.m.

• Voter registration or party affiliation change deadline is Oct. 11 at 5 p.m.

• One-stop voting will begin Oct. 16. One-stop voting will end Nov. 2 at 1 p.m. One-stop voting sites will be determined.

• Absentee ballots will be accepted through Nov. 5 at 5 p.m., unless they are mailed. Ballots mailed by civilians must be postmarked by Nov. 5 and received by Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. Ballots mailed by military must be received by Nov. 14 at 5 p.m.

• The supplemental and provisional ballot meeting will be Nov. 14 at 3 p.m.

• The election canvass will be Nov. 15.

• Polls will open Election Day at 6:30 a.m. and will close at 7:30 p.m.

• Onslow County Board of Elections office is at 246 Georgetown Road in Jacksonville. The election office’s hours are 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except on holidays. The phone number is (910) 455-4484.

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

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