Candidates unsure of districts, maps missing in River Falls

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A map circulating among those running for the River Falls Town Council shows at least one candidate is qualified to run in the wrong district, while other questions loom about how voters cast a ballot in the Aug. 28 municipal election.

Town Clerk Mary Andrews said Tuesday she’s unsure how and in what district and place citizens are required to vote and hopes to get answers at today’s election officials school in Andalusia.

There are nine candidates for the four challenged seats on the ballot. In the mayor’s race, the incumbent, Mary Hixon, is being challenged by Patricia Gunter. Hixon has served as mayor since 1972.

This is the first time Hixon has had opposition since the two faced each other 16 years ago. Hixon has also served as town clerk over elections for more than three decades.

On Monday, Hixon was questioned about issues surrounding the upcoming election.

A map with hand-drawn lines obtained by The Star-News outlines two voting districts. City officials said there are two places in district 1 and three places in district 2. No redistricting has been recorded since the late 1980s.

Hixon refused The Star-News’ request for a voting district map on Monday, stating the town’s official map “disappeared in 2006.” She then said by law, she had 10 days to produce a map and “given time, I can come up with what I know is right.”

Attempts by The Star-News to obtain a map through the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Office, which redrew the last official election map, and from the U.S. Department of Justice, were unsuccessful.

Candidates are using an unofficial map with the two districts separated by the Alabama and Florida Railway. Those on the east side of the railway are classified in district 1, those on the west, in district 2.

According to a list of qualified candidates provided by the town, Loy Roy Morgan, a resident of Ferrell Road, qualified for the district 1, place 1 seat. He was unopposed.

The district map obtained by The Star-News shows Ferrell Road is in district 2.

In a previous election “years and years ago,” Morgan defeated Cleveland Harris Jr. to keep his seat.

Harris is on the Aug. 28 ballot – this time made to qualify for the district 2, place 1 seat against incumbent Mattie Freeney and challenger Willie Howard Jr.

“I’ve been in the same spot for 30 years,” Harris said. “Mr. Morgan has been in his spot since I was a child. I think (Hixon) just put me where ever.”

When Hixon, who was also in charge of qualifying candidates for this and previous elections, was asked how she determined where candidates were to qualify, she said, “We’ve had the same council since 2000. People know where (the lines) are.”

When asked for copies of election items such as a voter list, a district map and candidate information, Hixon said, “I’ll have it all when I need to have it. Please understand that I’m not trying to be difficult. I’m trying to take care of myself for a change.”

Hixon did disclose the city was in dire financial straights.

“We’re not making enough money in our court system to pay for our police officers, and we have a $30,000 note to pay for the water system,” she said. “We don’t have any money.”

When asked about candidates qualifying in the wrong district, she said, “I guess there was a mistake made before,” speaking of a previous election.

Candidates have called the political process in River Falls “frustrating.”

“We don’t even know where the lines are,” Howard said. “It’s frustrating. You ride around to see people and ask for their vote. Then, they say they can’t vote for me because they’re not even sure who they can vote for.

“It’s a messed up mess, and something needs to be done,” Howard said. “With a good council and mayor, it can be straightened out.”

Hixon said the town council holds monthly meetings, with a quorum last convening in July. She said a meeting was set for Tuesday (yesterday) at 4 p.m.; however, no one was at town hall when Star-News staff arrived.

Freeney, who was appointed to the town council following the death of a council woman “a few years ago,” said she hasn’t been notified of any council meetings, including the one allegedly set for Tuesday.

“Last time I went to meet, there was no quorum,” she said. “I was told by (Hixon) that she would call me (about the next scheduled meeting), and I’m still waiting.”

Freeney said she has also repeatedly asked for financial reports, but Hixon has not produced them.

“I’m not sure how things are getting paid,” she said. “If I’m going to be responsible, I need to know what’s going on.”

Hixon said Monday she has now turned over all election duties and bookkeeping duties to Andrews, the clerk.

When asked why at 91, she doesn’t retire as River Falls mayor, Hixon said, “I’d hate to see what would happen to my little town if I just walked off.”

-Kendra Bolling contributed to this report