Mayor eager to begin reforms

Town won't appeal ruling awarding election to Holt

`It is time ... to move forward'

Slowing growth, hiring manager are priorities

Mount Airy

August 01, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

When Jim Holt answered the phone a few minutes before midnight May 6, he expected to hear that he'd been elected mayor of Mount Airy. Instead, he was told that election officials had declared his opponent the winner by 181 votes -- after discarding more than 250 write-in ballots that said only "Holt."

Now, however, he is about to be sworn in as mayor of the Carroll County town. And though he was initially reluctant to support the court challenge that reversed the election results, he said he will waste no time pushing the reform ideas that got him elected.

"The town needed a change, and I'm ready to start working on the problems we talked about during the campaign," he said in an interview yesterday at his engineering office in Baltimore. "We need to slow growth and we need to hire a town manager, and I know everyone on the council doesn't agree with me about everything, so I'll have to convince them."

In Mount Airy yesterday, town officials said they would not appeal the ruling that overturned the election results.

"The Town Council, unanimously, believes that the people of Mount Airy have been through a divisive election and difficult aftermath and that the time has come to end this process with the Circuit Court's decision," the five members of the Town Council said in a joint statement yesterday. "It is time for this community to move forward."

Holt's opponent, three-term incumbent Mayor Gerald R. Johnson, supports the decision not to appeal, the statement said. His desk appeared cleaned off yesterday in anticipation of Holt's swearing in this afternoon. Johnson has refused comment since election night.

Many in town said justice had been served because the majority of voters had tried to select Holt.

"Voter intent was what was on the line," said Ben Gue, a Holt supporter and longtime Main Street shop owner. "I'm glad the judge saw it that way."

In the week after the election, Gue gathered about 200 signatures asking for the result to be overturned. "This is a good thing for Mount Airy," he said. "Maybe we can finally get something done now."

The court victory was the culmination of a long quest by scores of people in and around rapidly growing Mount Airy to push aside the town's veteran leaders.

Reform sought

The reform movement began among parents who believed their children took too many classes in trailers and waited too long in lunch lines at crowded Mount Airy Elementary.

Though the town has no direct control over the schools, parents blamed leaders such as Johnson and former Councilman R. Delaine Hobbs for annexations that brought thousands of new residents to town.

Holt, who has lived in Mount Airy about 10 years, said he always wondered why town leaders allowed such rapid growth.

Then he read a letter to the editor in a local publication about this year's election that outlined the case against Johnson and Hobbs.

Intrigued, Holt attended the town's March nominating meeting, where town residents nominate candidates they want on the ballot.

He was impressed by nomination speeches for the reform candidates and in a post-meeting chat with several activists, lamented the fact that the mayor faced no opposition. The activists asked him if he might challenge Johnson as a write-in candidate.

When he returned home that night, Holt told his wife, "You'll never guess who's running for mayor."

He felt so good about the response to his campaign that he hardly thought twice when election officials told him they would count votes for six variations of his name -- James Holt, James S. Holt, Jim Holt, Jimmy Holt, J. Holt and J.S. Holt -- but not for Holt. That seemed a fair solution to him.

But an unexpected problem arose four days before the election when the Mount Airy Gazette, a free community paper distributed to town residents, wrote that votes for "Holt" would be accepted.

Holt and his supporters implored supporters to include a first name, but their hopes sank on election day as voters leaving the polls said they had written only "Holt."

Holt was deeply disappointed at his defeat, but when supporters and others began asking if he would contest the result, he answered no.

"I just did not want the image of being a whiner," he said.

`Not your decision'

The write-in candidate's supporters had other ideas. Hundreds of Holt voters had been disenfranchised, they said, and Johnson, the man they had worked so hard to unseat, was the beneficiary. Michael Boyer, a defeated council candidate, decided that if Holt wouldn't push a protest, he would.

Holt tried to talk Boyer out of a lawsuit. "Just drop it," he remembered telling him. "It's not worth it."

"It's not your decision, Jim," he remembered Boyer replying. Boyer would spend $12,700 on the suit.

With such determined support, Holt said he would serve if a judge overturned the result. He still wanted to make the changes he had promised.

Tuesday morning, he was greeted by a phone message saying, "Hello, Mr. Mayor, this is Brooks Leahy."

Leahy, Boyer's attorney, had called to relay Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr.'s decision reversing the result. People writing in "Holt" obviously meant to vote for James Holt, Beck wrote in awarding the 252 discarded votes to the challenger.

Despite suggestions from residents that the election left many bitter feelings, Holt said he sees no need for a healing process.

"That's baloney," he said in his typical plain-spoken fashion. "This wasn't a divisive election. Jerry was always polite to me, and I was always polite to him."

He promised to push immediately for his campaign objectives -- enhanced growth restrictions and hiring a town manager. He won't be like Johnson, he said, spending a few hours a day at Town Hall and walking the streets, urging people to shovel their sidewalks in the winter and turn off their sprinklers in the summer.

"I'm not a big talker," he said. "But I'll be there when I need to be there."

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