High Point will experience a rare occurrence on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012: a transition from one mayor to another.
After all, High Point Mayor Becky Smothers has been mayor for all but four years since 1992. Smothers lost in 1999 to Arnold Koonce, then retook the office in 2003 and has held it since. Smothers has had such a lock on the mayorship that High Point City Council swearings-in have tended to be sort of samey-samey, except for a slow attrition among other councilmembers.
Not this year. High Point on Nov. 6 elected Councilmember Bernita Sims mayor. Sims will be High Point's first black mayor, a historic event even though Sims chooses to play it down – although she acknowledges that it has historical significance.
"It absolutely does," she said. "But I don't want people to put so much on that that it takes the emphasis off what I bring to the table. It's a great thing that I happen to be black, but I did this because I think I'm the best person for this job."
If the election of High Point's first black mayor wasn't enough to distinguish the swearing-in, High Pointers elected an almost entirely new City Council, changing the occupants of six seats on the nine-member City Council, although Smothers will return as an at-large councilmember.
The swearing-in is the one meeting everybody who is anybody in High Point politics – and their families, friends and acquaintances – shows up for. The City Council chamber is usually standing room only.
The unusual nature of the Dec. 3 swearing-in will add to that mix people wanting to celebrate the swearing-in of the city's first black mayor.
As a result, the swearing-in meeting will be held, not in the City Council chamber, but in the High Point Theatre across the street in the International Home Furnishings Center.
"I kind of felt like individuals who wanted to come and be there should have a chance to be a part of it," Sims said. "I don't know how many people will show up, but in a normal swearing-in process we have an overflow of the chamber. And it is a council meeting. We may end up that nobody will come, but I don't think so."
Smothers dismissed in advance any complaints about moving the meeting.
"Apparently her whole church is coming," Smothers said. "You have to stop every now and then and think, 'Suppose the situation was reversed, and she was the first white person being elected mayor?' We might need the theater or a stadium. People really need to get a grip."
The swearing-in is, of course, only the official changing of the guard. More important are the changes between how Smothers has run the City Council, and how Sims will do so, and their differences in City Council priorities. Sims and Smothers on Monday, Nov. 12 revealed that Sims will keep much of Smothers' agenda, but may change the way the City Council does business.
The actual reorganization of the City Council will take place at a meeting on Thursday, Dec. 6. At that meeting, Sims will determine the seating arrangement of the councilmembers – a more important political factor than you might think – assign, or discuss assigning, councilmembers to committees, and the council will consider changes Sims has proposed in the way the City Council does business.
The new City Council will be unusual in that it will include one mayor – Sims – and two former mayors, Smothers, who won an at-large seat, and Judy Mendenhall, who knocked off Mike Pugh to win the Ward 3 seat.
Smothers said she asked Sims to seat her as far from Sims as possible. "There can't be any confusion of roles," she said. "You only have one mayor. 'Ex' means you aren't."
Smothers said that, except for that, she didn't care which seat she got. "It'll be fine," she said. "They're all uncomfortable."
Smothers said Sims would differ from herself as mayor in some ways.
"She'll probably have a lot more patience than I have, because God only gives you so much," Smothers said. "I'm 12 years older than she is, and I may have used up my jug."
Sims said that she is talking with councilmembers about seating arrangements and committee assignments, and hasn't made any decisions.
"Nothing definitive has been done yet, but I figure by the middle of next week I will have all that tied down," Sims said
The largest change Sims plans to make in City Council procedure is that more of the City Council's business will be done by the "Committee of the Whole" – the entire City Council – than in sometimes sparsely attended committee meetings.
High Point has for years used a somewhat peculiar, committee system to conduct city business. Most of the City Council's business is actually done in committee meetings, including the Monday meeting that everyone treats as a City Council meeting, but which is actually a meeting of the City Council's Committee of the Whole – a fine distinction, but one that matters in High Point's case.
At the Monday meeting, the Committee of the Whole used to recommend approval or denial of items for a City Council meeting held on Thursday. The Committee of the Whole still votes to recommend approval of items at the Thursday meetings, but now usually votes to make all action final on Monday, eliminating the need for the Thursday meeting.
With almost all of the substantive debate on issues occurring in committees, and with an affirmative committee vote required to place an item on the City Council's agenda, the High Point City Council has given its chairmen more power than most cities.
Smothers tried to change the committee system when she returned from her four years in the outer darkness when Koonce was mayor. But Smothers returned to office weakened from her defeat by Koonce and faced a wall of opposition to eliminating the committee system from longtime Councilmembers Bill Bencini, Laura Wiley, Latimer Alexander and Sims.
According to Bencini, supporters of the committee system sat Smothers down and told her getting rid of it just wasn't going to happen.
Exactly what Sims means by giving more power to the City Council Committee of the Whole isn't clear. She isn't proposing doing away with the committees, as Smothers did in 2003. But she said she wants to make sure that all city councilmembers are involved in decisions. The only committee that has done regular business in the last couple of years has been the Finance Committee, which meets before Monday's Committee of the Whole and votes to recommend approval or rejection of all spending to the full City Council.
Smothers interpreted Sims' statements on changing the council's business structure as doing what she tried to do in 2003.
Sims has the advantage of a largely new council, and may not face a wall of opposition like Smothers did in 2003.
Councilmembers Alexander, Chris Whitley, A.B. Henley, Mike Pugh and Jim Corey will all be off the council on Dec 3. Whitley ran for mayor and lost; Alexander ran for state Senate and lost, Henley decided not to run for reelection and Pugh and Corey were defeated on Nov. 6.
From the current City Council, only Sims, who now represents Ward 1, Mayor Smothers, At-large Councilmember Britt Moore and Ward 2 Councilmember Foster Douglas will return to the City Council on Dec. 3.
Sims outlined some of the similarities and differences between her priorities and those of Smothers.
First, unlike Pugh and Douglas, Sims, like Smothers, supports High Point City Manager Strib Boynton, who she credited with prudent fiscal management.
One difference between Smothers and Sims is that Sims is likely to be a stronger supporter of the High Point City Project, a public-private partnership the City Council created to renew High Point's old neighborhoods. But Sims said it will take a City Council consensus to get the urban renewal moving faster.
Sims said the City Project needs to fast-track individual improvements in neighborhoods, rather than trying to renovate the whole city at once.
Sims said the City Council needs to better communicate how city government works.
"I think that some things were said during this election that to me said that there were some basic misunderstandings about what council does, and about what this council did," she said. "The only person I think that might have had some valid comments was Cynthia Davis. She was in the room. The rest is differences in perceptions of what she saw.
"The others weren't in the room and didn't look at the budget. How can you make an assessment that council did not do a good job on the budget if you weren't there? We did not raise taxes. It was not even revenue-neutral. It was less than that. I think if you look at it, what we did was conservative when it came to the budget."