Mount Airy Mayor Ron Niland has repeatedly said he wants to keep his re-election bid positive — without attacks on his opponent, City Commissioner Jon Cawley — and focused more on issues and on what he feels like he brings to the table as a leader.
Recent statements by Cawley, however, have brought Niland to the point where he said he believes he has to respond. Cawley has lobbed several attacks at Niland, other city commissioners, and openly opposed a downtown comprehensive plan in recent weeks, leading up to the Nov. 8 election.
Niland said despite the attacks and what he termed “misinformation” spread by Cawley, he has held his tongue. “I let it go because I thought it was best to be positive, to run a positive campaign.”
The mayor said Cawley crossed a line earlier this week when he asserted that much of the controversy and uncertainty over the downtown comprehensive plan can be laid at the feet of the mayor.
“If I had been the mayor, I would have publicly corrected the misinformation that was being spread and avoided the unnecessary vote by the commissioners after the public hearing,” he said. “Our mayor’s silence has only exasperated the issue.”
That plan is a loose guide for potential development downtown and has city leaders looking at ways to help present business grow, attract new business, and make improvements to the area.
That was the final straw for Niland, particularly after a statement in the spring in which Cawley questioned the mayor’s honesty.
“He called me incompetent and deceitful,” the mayor said, referring to that earlier statement. “Calling me incompetent is not my objection,” he said, explaining that competence or incompetence is often in the eye of the beholder. “What I object to is being called deceitful. That goes to character. That’s not right, it’s not true,” Niland said.
“I have taken pride in my positive campaign and wholeheartedly believe that all public servants should run on their own merits instead of attacking their opponent. Unfortunately, Commissioner Cawley has repeatedly chosen to campaign by creating grievances and making personal attacks on me, city staff, and community leaders,” the mayor said.
After months of “turning the other cheek,” he feels Mount Airy residents and voters are owed “my response to the accusations made against me.”
“Commissioner Cawley claims I have not tried to correct misinformation on the Downtown Master Plan. I made multiple public statements about the plan at council meetings and instructed our staff to put together the FAQ (frequently asked questions) fact sheet to help citizens better understand the contents of the downtown plan. I have been going door-to-door to the downtown businesses and households in the community to listen and talk about the plan.”
He then questioned Cawley’s role in spreading misinformation, and in sowing discord among city residents rather than exhibiting leadership to find common ground.
“Our city commissioners have the same responsibility to bring the truth to the citizens with their public platform. Instead, my opponent chose to protest the plan and plant fear in the minds of Mount Airy citizens…He said it’s not his job as a city commissioner to correct disinformation. Well, what is his job?”
While Niland contends that Cawley has exhibited these characteristics for a long while, he believes Cawley has seized on the city’s work toward developing that comprehensive plan for the city as an excuse to intensify attacks on Niland and others.
The plan is a working guide of potential development, not a blueprint carved in stone, and is not just for Main Street — it is for the “eight or ten blocks around Main Street.”
“It is an aspirational plan,” Niland said. “It is not a plan that will be adopted in full.”
Most cities have comprehensive plans — Mount Airy already has one in effect, and this could be considered a partial update. Oftentimes, such plans are required for applying for development grants, and can serve as a guide to combine projects, saving money.
For instance, Niland said the city is plagued with an aging water and sewer system, particularly in the downtown area.
“Some (pipes) are over a hundred years old. We’re going to have to deal with them…some probably in the next five to seven years.”
It only makes sense, he believes, to have a plan in place for what the downtown area might become before digging up those lines.
“While you have to dig up and make the disruption, while you’re doing that, it makes sense to think about what you put back. I have no preconceived notions about what that might be…we might just put back the sidewalk like it was.”
But, he said, if ideas of moving power and utility lines underground are something to be considered, it should be part of the plan ahead of time, to be done as the water and sewer pipes are replaced, to save money and time.
That plan, he said, was put together slowly, over time, with input from city residents, business owners, and city leaders — with the exception of one commissioner, Cawley. Instead, he believes Cawley has mostly sat on the sidelines, protesting and making accusations that are not true, rather than be part of the process.
“After voting against the plan, Commissioner Cawley marched in the downtown protest along with about 50 individuals. He is the only Mount Airy elected official who did not participate in the nine-month planning process. The commissioners and I were given an opportunity to be interviewed as stakeholders and to attend three public workshops. Commissioner Cawley had the same opportunities to steer the process but chose not to participate.”
That, he believes, has become par for the course. While information packets regarding upcoming meetings are sent to the commissioners, with documents and background information on agenda items, Niland believes Cawley rarely avails himself of those packets to be ready for the meetings.
“He exhibits a pattern of being unprepared for meetings and a lack of understanding of important city issues, including the budget,” the mayor said. “While other officials do their homework, he makes accusations of not receiving the same information accessible to all of us. He has convenient amnesia when it serves to gain headlines. His willingness to divide the citizens for potential gain is regrettable.
“Leadership is not attacking others. Leadership is the expectation that you can use your voice for good. That you can make the world a better place by encouraging others to do their best and accomplish goals that help build a community. That’s what I believe.”