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Surge in last minute write-ins makes Webster election a popular affair

In July only two candidates signed up to get on the ballot for the five spots up for grabs in Webster’s town board election, posing a quandary for the tiny Jackson County town of just over 250 registered voters.

When Election Day rolled around last week, however, burgeoning interest among town residents resulted in more than 20 write-in candidates emerging in an election that drew 42 voters.

The turnaround that transpired in the run-up to the election proved to be a lesson in small town politics. Steve Gray –– who served as the town’s mayor for 11 years before stepping down prior to the election –– said he was surprised by the number of write-ins, although he tried his best to drum up people willing to run as a write-in and to turn out and vote on election day.

“It was really quiet before the election. I never heard a peep,” said Gray, publisher of the Sylva Herald. “A lot of people on the list I’m wondering if their families wrote them in.”

Two of the winning write-in candidates weren’t accidents, because Gray and other local leaders recruited them to put their name in the hat, in order to ensure there were enough people to make the town board viable.

Mark Jamison, Webster’s postmaster, and Alan Grant, an instructor at Southwestern Community College, garnered as many votes as sitting town board members Billie Bryson and Jean Davenport, whose names officially appeared on the ballot. Both Jamison and Grant have been involved in the town’s political structure in various ways in the past, and both were known quantities to the town’s voters.

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“I was surprised with Mark and Alan both that they didn’t file to begin with,” Gray said.

Bryson –– whose father was an alderman in the town and who has served on the board for the past 14 years –– believes the filing deadline simply took people by surprise.

“The sign-up deadline just snuck up on people and then it disappeared,” Bryson said. “We’ve always had problems with people not being interested in the town board meetings.”

But Jamison said that, at least in his case, the reluctance to file was no accident.

“Nobody was really interested in serving,” Jamison said.

Jamison said he agreed to serve in the end because he knew it was important that the board maintains a quorum.

Bryson said that she, like Gray, expected to see Jamison and Grant win board slots, but she didn’t know what to think of the third-leading vote getter when ballots were tallied at the close of Election Day, A.J. Rowell, or some of the other write-ins.

“We had a few people we already knew were qualified and we wanted them on there. I don’t know about the others,” Bryson said.

The write-in election for the last available board spot made for a whimsical scenario in which 18 separate candidates received between one and six votes each. Rowell ended up with six votes, just ahead of Rick Fulton and Karen Dill, who earned five.

The final count was so close that Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections, warned that a count of provisional ballots could end up deciding the outcome.

Provisional ballots –– ballots cast by people not appearing on the voting roll sheets –– are set aside until the election board determines whether the voters were eligible. That count took place on Tuesday.

In the ongoing Webster write-in saga, the results of the count changed the election’s outcome. Rick Fulton scored two additional votes, nosing out Rowell by one vote.

Rowell hadn’t given a seat on the board much thought until a few weeks ago, when Gray asked him if he would be willing to serve if people wrote in his name. Rowell said he wouldn’t be devastated if the provisional ballots put an early end to his political career, but he also said he would be pleased to serve his new community.

“I’ll be sure not to lose too much sleep over it, but I’ll be happy to serve on the board if I should get the honor to do so,” said Rowell, an accountant a few years removed from college.

Dill –– who already serves on the town’s planning board –– said she never expected to get more than the one vote her husband told her he would cast on her behalf.

“Elections in Webster are not this hot item,” Dill said. “It’s not like everyone’s going around talking about it.”

Dill said she hoped she, Fulton and Rowell could come to some agreement if they ended up with the same number of votes after the provisional vote count on canvas day.

“I think we should all just flip a coin or something and whoever wins doesn’t have to serve,” Dill joked.

Jamison, arguably the town’s most recognizable public servant as its postmaster, believes the message of what has been a highly unusual election process is that the town board doesn’t have a strong mandate to create change.

“It’s kind of weird, but what it tells you is you don’t have much of a mandate. It tells you people don’t want you to do a whole lot. In my case, I think I’ll tread lightly,” Jamison said.

Webster’s planning board is busy working on an overhaul of the town’s 1970s-era zoning ordinances, and the new board’s most decisive action may come when it votes to approve those reform measures.

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