GARLAND — One of three contested municipal races in the county, Garland was site of the only incumbents losing their seats in an election that saw 65 percent voter turnout for the town, about three times the percentage seen countywide.
Garland mayor Winfred Murphy was returned to her mayoral position in a hotly-contested race pitting her against current town commissioner Ralph Smith. Husband and wife Michael and Denise Toler were not re-elected to the Garland Board of Commissioners, with Carolyn Yolanda Melvin and past commissioner S.J. Smith instead taking their place on the board. Haywood C. Johnson garnered the largest amount of votes in the election to remain on the board.
Murphy secured 152 votes (51.7 percent) to opponent Smith’s 141 (47.96 percent) in the mayoral race to maintain her post.
“I feel very honored that the majority of the citizens chose me to represent them for the next four years. I sincerely view this additional time as an opportunity to provide leadership to improve services and the quality of life for all citizens,” said Murphy Wednesday. “Yesterday’s election certainly validates that citizens have faith that I can provide the leadership needed to continue improvement and growth in Garland. I will never abuse or take lightly the trust and faith in me by the citizens.”
Murphy and Ralph Smith were voted onto the board as commissioners two years ago, but Murphy vacated her commissioner’s seat just a couple months later when she was appointed to the town’s helm following longtime mayor Anthony Johnson’s resignation in January 2012. Despite losing out to Murphy, Smith will not see his term as commissioner end until 2015.
Along with Murphy’s election, the town affirmed board-appointee Johnson as its top choice. Johnson, who previously served as commissioner before being voted out in 2011, was appointed to the board to fill the unexpired term of Coleman Johnson in early 2012 and now has earned four more years.
“It feels good,” said Haywood Johnson, who has served on the town board for over a decade. “I’ve been commissioner, so this is nothing new. I don’t know if they believe in me now more than they believed in me before, but I appreciate the people voting for me and having confidence in me. I look forward to the next four years.”
Johnson was the top vote-getter in the town’s board race, with 160 votes, or 21.8 percent of all the votes cast. S.J. Smith garnered the second-most votes with 137 (18.66 percent). The third seat on the Garland town board was secured by newcomer Carolyn Yolanda Melvin, who received 124 votes (16.89 percent), beating out incumbent Denise Toler (121 votes, or 16.49 percent) by just three votes for the final board spot.
Michael Toler finished with 101 votes (13.76 percent), while challenger Judy C. Smith garnered 89 votes (12.13 percent). There were two write-ins for the board, and another for the mayoral race.
“I’m so very excited and I’m so looking forward to serving the town,” said Melvin, a nurse at Sampson Regional Medical Center. Melvin has lived in Garland for nine years, having moved from Fayetteville, and said she loves her town. “It was a big change, but a change I absolutely love.”
Melvin is heavily involved at St. Stephens AME Zion Church, where she is choir director, and said she is a Christian woman through and through. A mother of six herself, Melvin also knows the importance of having educational and recreational opportunities for children, young and older. It is one of the reasons she ran for election.
“I wanted to see some things for children, not just the smaller children but some of the young adults,” said Melvin. “And I really thought much more could be done for the park.”
She said many strides have already been made and looked forward to being part of future improvements.
“I believe in Mayor Murphy’s plan,” she said. “I like that we’re cleaning Garland up and I know we need to do more.”
The Tolers and S.J. Smith could not immediately be reached for comment.
Prior to his departure from the board at the end of 2011, S.J. Smith served the town of Garland for nearly 40 years as a commissioner and town employee. He was honored at the beginning of 2012 for his decades of service. This summer, Smith, a regular at the town meetings even when he was not on the board, said he wanted to continue to serve his town.
Murphy said she looks forward to working with Ralph Smith and the new board, which now consists of S.J. Smith, Haywood Johnson, Carolyn Melvin and recent appointee Michael Strickland.
“Truth is, neither of us can do anything individually and we have the unique opportunity to combine our strengths for the betterment of Garland,” Murphy said, talking about Ralph Smith. “If we can generate the interest, attendance, and engagement in other projects as we did on election day and night, we can do magnificent things for Garland.”
Murphy pointed to the two-thirds of the registered voting population turning out in Garland — a great sign, she noted. She urged all Garland residents to remain engaged in town matters, not just on election night but moving forward.
“People care about the direction of our town,” said Murphy. “Decisions made by the board will not always be in favor of every citizen, but I promise to listen respectfully and to advocate for the rights of all. I encourage all citizens to hold me and all other elected official to high standards and accountability.”
Inside the numbers
As Murphy noted, voter turnout in Garland was huge for Tuesday night’s election, with more than 65 percent of the registered voters casting ballots, by far the best turnout in any municipality.
Garland has 448 registered voters. According to preliminary numbers provided by the Board of Elections, 292 of those registered voters cast ballots. That included 269 people who voted at the Garland Town Hall on Tuesday, while another 23 voted at the Sampson County Board of Elections — Murphy got 22 of those votes in the mayoral race, while Smith received one.
For the board race, each voter was asked to select three names, so while Board of Elections statistics show top vote-getter Johnson received little more than one-fifth of the votes cast (in relation to total votes), the 160 votes he received actually means that more than half the 292 Garland residents who voted selected Johnson as one of their commissioners, and so on.
As a point of comparison, Murphy was the top vote-getter in the 2011 municipal election, garnering 35.62 percent of the total votes, or 83 votes — roughly half the total votes top vote-getter Johnson received Tuesday night. In a strange twist, the four people who ran for two available seats in that election two years ago — Murphy and Ralph Smith beat out Johnson and S.J. Smith — will now be around the same table as elected officials.
Countywide, there were 715 ballots cast, or 21.83 percent of the 3,275 registered voters in those precincts with races. Of those ballots, 48 were cast early and there were six mail-in ballots. While the total voters who casted ballots was down from the 850 in 2011, there were also half the number of contested races this year as opposed to the six in 2011. There were six more one-stop voters this time around, with just 42 two years ago.
All votes are unofficial until the Sampson County Board of Election holds its canvas next Tuesday, Nov. 12.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.