In another place at another time, there was once a great city election.

Unlike in New Bedford, the mayor in Portsmouth, N.H., is the city councilor who receives the most votes.

There are nine at-large council seats and whoever wins the most votes is mayor.

In 1997, there was a great battle between a scrappy little woman named Evelyn Sirrell and a genial Main Street guy named Alex Hanson.

Sirrell worked by day as a meter maid and was the moving force behind the local taxpayers group. Evelyn was an acquired taste: Though she was a big-hearted woman she was also famous for railing against big-spenders and liberals. Alex was more your small-business, compromise-behind-the-scenes guy.

They both had deep roots in the community and a genial enough relationship.

Nearly everyone, however, thought Alex would beat Evelyn. He was simply the more polished candidate, much more the mayor from central-casting.

But on election night as the ballots came in, everyone at City Hall was surprised as Evelyn stayed close to Alex in the counting. When Evelyn went home for the night she was behind by four votes.

But when she woke up the next morning, she learned that when the final ballots were tallied, she had been elected mayor by one vote.

Some of the local wags flapped that Alex would certainly defeat Evelyn on the recount, they simply couldn't imagine that the meter maid could become mayor.

The political pundits, however, were wrong.

Sirrell actually gained six more votes on the recount and won the election by a robust seven votes.

Sirrell went on to serve eight years as Portsmouth mayor and she never suffered a close election again.

And much to the surprise of many, she ended up being liberal enough to lead a successful effort to build a new library in Portsmouth. She also led a statewide effort to repeal New Hampshire's state property tax and a dogged but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from closure.

When Evelyn Sirrell died in 2009, she was both beloved and recognized as one of the most respected mayors in Portsmouth's last 25 years.

You didn't, of course, have to be in Portsmouth, N.H., in 1997 to see that elections can be very close and that the results can make all the difference in a city's history.

In the New Bedford preliminary election on Oct. 8, financial adviser Leo Choquette grabbed the last of 10 spots available to compete for five at-large council seats in the final election.

He grabbed that spot by one vote over Ralf Rho, a promising first-time candidate who works in Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan's office.

Rho decided not to contest the results with a recount and Choquette has gone on to run one of the more visible campaigns of the council challengers.

With no mayor's race this year, New Bedford's election season has been a mostly out-of-sight, out-of-mind affair. But there are still important races to be decided.

With the city school system in crisis and the state already taking over one elementary school, there is an open School Committee seat.

There's also an open at-large seat and even with former Councilor Linda Morad likely to grab that spot, incumbent Councilor John Saunders' sixth-place finish in the preliminary election means there's a chance of an upset. That upset could greatly change the direction of New Bedford government in the next two years as Saunders — whether you love him, hate him or are indifferent — is one of the most influential, if not the most influential, of councilors.

And it doesn't end with the at-large race in the high stakes in this 2013 New Bedford election.

In Ward 5, the retirement of longtime Councilor Jane Gonsalves means there is an open seat in the affluent ward that many believe is the most influential section of the city. Certainly more movers and shakers in New Bedford live in Ward 5 than anyplace else.

So think of the meter maid from Portsmouth, that unlikely mayor, and what happened when the voters came out and elected her by one vote, and ultimately seven votes on the recount.

And think of how close Ralf Rho came to being on the final ballot this year in New Bedford.

And think of the big issues at stake as New Bedford continues to kick-start its economy and rebuild its school system.

Get out and vote on Tuesday. Your vote really could make a big difference.

By Jack Spillane | Standard-Times