November 22, 2019

City council meets Tuesday to pick new mayor, vice mayor

Oxford city council will pick a new mayor and vice mayor 7 p.m. Tuesday, at the Oxford Courthouse. 

Council also will divide up committee assignments among themselves at the meeting. 

City Council has its organizational meeting every two years in accordance with the city charter. The meeting must take place within five days of the beginning of the new council term, which starts Monday.

"I run the initial meeting, and we swear in the council members," said Kate Rousmaniere, the current mayor who is term-limited off council after two consecutive four-year terms. "Then they go into a room, and they decide who's going to be on what boards, and commissions, and then they decide who's going to be mayor and vice mayor."

Vice Mayor Steve Dana also is leaving council, as he decided not to seek re-election.

While Oxford's charter doesn't provide for how the organizational meeting should play out, there's procedure from recent years that serves as a precedent.

"There's no set rule, I think what happens is the group gets into the room, and says, 'how do you want to do this,'" Rousmaniere said.

"It's a very bizarre kind of arrangement of how it works," Councilor Edna Southard said. "It's done in a private meeting, and it can be very random, you never know."

The meeting starts with a transition of power, in which Rousmaniere oversees the swearing-in of the elected councilors: Jason Bracken and Bill Snavely. Re-elected councilor Glenn Ellerbe also will be sworn in.

After that, the new council goes into executive session, which allows them to privately discuss the business at hand.

Next, the councilors who want to be mayor will either be nominated or nominate themselves. Each is then given some time to talk about why he wants to be mayor, what his platform is, and what his credentials are.

Then, the councilors not in the running for mayor vote. But with only seven councilors, some issues can arise.

If, for example, three candidates are running, and two receive two votes each from the remaining councilors, the candidate who received no votes then would act as a swing vote. The only time that system would break is if all seven councilors wanted to be mayor -- a remote possibility. A similar process has been followed for to pick a vice mayor as well.

Rousmaniere, who contested mayor Kevin McKeehan's job in 2015 and won, said mayoral hopefuls should talk to their fellow councilors.

"I went around to other council members, and (said), 'would you vote for me.' And I was running against another guy that was mayor, and I unseated him," Rousmaniere said.

Despite that, Rousmaniere said McKeehan and her worked well together over the next two years.

Southard, who was elected in 2013 and re-elected in 2017, said she'd be interested in being mayor, and had talked to a couple of other councilors about it. Ellerbe, for his part, said he doesn't feel ready to be mayor, but would be interested in being vice mayor, in order to learn the ropes.

"I like to work my way up through the ranks so I understand how things work," Ellerbe said. "Working with Kate and seeing the stuff she has to do as the figurehead of the city -- I would rather be vice mayor, than mayor."

Perhaps in two years.

"I'd say in a year or two, because my in my experience being on council, I had certain ideas when I got on, and now that I'm much more experienced, those opinions have significantly changed -- how the city works, how government is structured, and how you're supposed to do things in that."

Although he doesn't feel ready now, Ellerbe said he endeavored to be mayor in the previous two organizational meetings, in 2015, when he was freshly elected, and in 2017.

"That's the difference between exuberance and wisdom," he said.

Besides Ellerbe and Southard, councilors David Prytherch, Chantel Raghu, and Mike Smith all three of whom were first elected in 2017-- will return to council from last term. Snavely served on council from 1987-1995 and 1997-2001. He served as mayor from 1991-1993 and from 1997-2001.

It would  break precedent for Bracken, council's only new face, to be chosen as mayor. Bernard Phelps, who served as mayor beginning in 1965, appears to be the last first-time electee to council to serve as mayor, although official records provided to The Observer are somewhat unclear.

"Do I think that a brand-new councilor should be mayor? No," Ellerbe said. "Even when I was running, I knew I wasn't qualified for the job, because there are a lot of things the mayor has to make decisions on that require a deep knowledge of how the city works."

Ellerbe said that just as he would, it would be best for Snavely to get some current experience on council before becoming mayor.

"He has experience on how the city runs from 15 years ago," Ellerbe said. "I still think he needs some time, on council, to see how things work now."

Although they'll hash things out Tuesday, and might contest amongst themselves the position of mayor, one thing is clear: Oxford’s cordial city council, who traditionally goes out for drinks after each council meeting, would like to keep it that way.

"I want a council that works together, and that is collegial, that works for the betterment of Oxford and not their own individual glory," Southard said.

"Whoever (the mayor) is, if it's me-- of course I'd support myself-- I will work with and support whoever gets chosen."