Charlotte voters could decide if city council members serve longer terms

Charlotte voters could decide if city council members serve longer terms
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Charlotte City Council voted Monday night to move forward with extending the duration of members’ terms.

  • But the people of Charlotte should have the final say. In the November election, voters will likely see a referendum on their ballots asking whether to double the mayor and council members’ two-year terms to four.
  • If passed, the change would go into effect in 2025.

Why it matters: Some elected leaders say if they’re in office longer, they can get more done and make progress on long-term projects before campaign season gets underway.

  • “The current council has to be the one to make the decision for future councils,” at-large representative LaWana Mayfield told her colleagues last month. “People will at least have an opportunity to get in, learn the job, be of service, actually do some good before they’re having to start campaigning again in less than 18 months.”

Driving the news: Right now, council is serving a shortened (15-month) term. That’s because the most recent election was postponed due to census delays and redistricting lawsuits. Some officials are expected to announce their candidacy for reelection soon, even though they’ve made slow movement on important issues, such as public transportation.

What’s happening: To extend the terms, the city must amend its charter.

On Monday, council only adopted a “resolution of intent to consider amending the city charter.” This essentially solidifies its interest in starting the lengthy process of changing the governance form.

  • Council is also proposing staggering elections so candidates aren’t running for all seats at once. As is, all representatives are elected every odd-numbered year. Most likely under the change, the at-large representatives and district seat holders would switch off election years.
  • The amendment would also add an eighth district representative. This would bring the council up to a dozen members, the most the city can have under North Carolina statute. With an even number of seats, the mayor would break more tie votes. Another redistricting process would likely need to take place in 2024.

The other side: The “resolution of intent” passed 6-4. Two members, Malcolm Graham and Marjorie Molina, expressed hesitation about supporting the change. Graham said the debate over the referendum could distract from other community issues during the height of election season.

Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, the two sole Republicans on council, also voiced opposition.

  • “No one has ever said, ‘You know what Tariq, the thing I want is less touch points to be able to hold you accountable,” Bokhari said at Monday’s meeting.
  • Bokhari noted that if there were staggered terms, the district representatives could run for an at-large position or mayor without the risk of losing their district seats.

“I think if the North Carolina legislature and the United States House of Representatives can function on two-year terms, it’s not clear to me why we can’t,” Driggs added.

  • Mayor Vi Lyles indicated the near-split vote wasn’t a good start to getting voters’ support of a referendum. “That’s not a very good mandate to go to the public,” she said.

Zoom in: City leaders aren’t legally required to put the proposed changes to the governance structure up to a vote in the election. They could approve it on their own. If 5,000 people decide to petition, however, state law would force the city to put it as a referendum on the ballot for voters to approve.

  • Most council members seem to agree they would rather put it on the ballot themselves than possibly spark a petition.

Flashback: The last time the city switched up its governing structure was in the ’70s, when Charlotte transitioned from seven at-large members to four at-large members and seven districts, WFAE reported.

  • At the time, Black leaders wanted to give minority groups a better chance of electing representatives from their areas.

What’s next: Residents will have a chance to voice their thoughts on the proposed changes during a public hearing on March 13.

Meanwhile, council members are also contemplating giving themselves a raise in the next budget. They’re comparing their compensation to that of other city leaders. The full body will discuss their compensation in March.

  • Some members say they should explore compensating themselves as if they are “full time” instead of “part time.” Council members have long considered their positions to be full-time jobs, which typically entails communicating with constituents, researching topics affecting their areas, and attending meetings and events.
  • Paying council members more makes it more financially feasible for people of different backgrounds and income levels to serve the public, proponents say. But the prospect of elected officials proposing to pay themselves more taxpayer money is always controversial.
  • The mayor makes $41,232 annually, and city council makes $33,943 — not including car, technology and expense allowances.

[Go deeper: The 50 highest paid government employees in the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County]

What we’re watching: The optics. Council is considering a raise and extending their terms around the same time that residents are bracing for potential property tax increases.

  • But most of the proposed changes are a long time coming. Charlotte City Council has considered changing its governance structure for years. The Citizen Advisory Committee on Governance conducted a closer review and made recommendations in 2020. Those recommendation, however, also suggested removing one of the four at-large seats.
  • “The challenge has always been political will versus political ability,” Mayfield said last night. “We have the political ability to put this on the ballot to let our residents of the city of Charlotte take part in voting up or down this conversation. The question is, are we finally at the place where we have the political will?”

To compare, Raleigh City Council has a mayor, two at-large members and five district representatives who are all elected every two years. Raleigh council members make an annual base salary of $29,848, and the mayor makes $36,511.

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