After more than 14 months, two state Supreme Court decisions and three elections, the voters of this shrinking seaside enclave ousted their previous mayor of 12 years Tuesday night in favor of one of her most persistent opponents on the Town Council.
Councilwoman Retha Pierce won 47 votes to suspended Mayor Irene Armstrong's 34 in an election closed to any write-in candidates Tuesday, bringing what could be an end to the town's long-running electoral saga.
"I want to thank all the voters, many of whom have spoken not one time or two times, but three times," Pierce said after Tuesday's results were announced. "It really wasn't a win-or-lose situation for Retha Pierce, it was win-or-lose for the citizens and stakeholders of Atlantic Beach."
Armstrong, who was indicted in March on misconduct charges and suspended from office, said in a telephone interview after the election that she did not want the seat and did not campaign for it, despite her votes.
"I put forth no effort and no resources," Armstrong said.
"I've moved on with my life. When politics becomes personal and destructive, I've been given a new perspective on it, and it's not for me."
Although Pierce's margin of victory rules out any need for a runoff or challenge-ballot hearing, one wild card remains: Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice have said the most recent court decision leading to Tuesday's election constitutes a change in election procedure that should have been cleared by them. Because Justice Department officials have declined to describe any of their possible courses of action, however, whether they will get involved remains to be seen.
The road to Pierce's win Tuesday began in November 2007, when she unseated Armstrong by a 71-70 vote.
When Armstrong challenged those results, the town election commission threw them out and called for a new election.
A series of appeals by both candidates led to the state Supreme Court, which first ordered a new election last month that Pierce nearly won outright over Armstrong and two write-in candidates. As a runoff approached, the court intervened, saying the Dec. 2 write-in blank violated the original order, and ordered yet another election solely between Pierce and Armstrong in the decision federal authorities are now eyeing.
If Tuesday's results stand, however, the town now has two pressing vacancies before it. Pierce's council seat must be declared vacant, creating the need for another election to fill it.
"I'm ready every day," said town resident Josephine Isom, one of the write-in candidates from the Dec. 2 election who already has begun passing out campaign fliers for the vacant council seat.
The town must also choose a new manager, beginning with a Jan. 23 workshop to begin interviewing applicants. Pierce has previously supported a proposal by David Meachem, executive director of the town's Housing Authority, but after nearly a year of 2-2 tie votes killing major issues before the Town Council, it is unclear when a manager will be chosen.
"We'll have to wait and see what applications we have in front of us," Pierce said.
Mustafa Abdullah, a Conway-based supporter of Pierce, said he expects an open process.
"It's enough of the old business," Abdullah said.
"This is like a new day, a new order."
William Booker and his wife, Lynda Booker, who have both recently moved to Atlantic Beach from Virginia, said they hope the election closes a chapter for the town.
"We would just like to see the town move forward in a positive way," Lynda Booker said. "We would just like to see something positive, and all the divisiveness come to an end."
Town resident Paul Curry, a frequent critic of town government who has sued the town on a number of issues, said he walked into the voting booth and, without a write-in blank, cast no vote in protest and left.
'"None of the above' wasn't an option," Curry said.
Despite a day-long drizzle and temperatures in the 40s, the 80 votes cast on Tuesday were slightly higher than in December. The town's voter rolls show slightly more than 300 active voters, but many of those people no longer live in town - their addresses are motels that are now empty, public-housing apartments that have since closed, or buildings that no longer exist.