When voters in Mecklenburg County get a look at their ballots for this year’s election, they’ll find a simple yes or no question thrown into the mix:
Should the structure of the Board of County Commissioners change so members serve four-year terms instead of two?
Commissioners voted 7-2 in July to put the measure on the ballot.
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Members of the nine-member partisan board have historically served two-year terms. But now, for the third time on record, they’re angling for double time around the dais. Here’s what you need to know about the proposed change:
Democratic Commissioner George Dunlap introduced the idea in June as a way of bringing Mecklenburg in step with the rest of the state. Mecklenburg is the only county in North Carolina with a board of commissioners whose members all serve two-year terms, according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. Elsewhere in the state, some boards are composed of commissioners who serve a mix of two-year and four-year terms.
If voters approve the change, the number of years commissioners serve would be the only adjustment. District boundaries would remain the same, as would the general makeup of the board (six district representatives and three at-large members).
The change would go into effect during the 2016 primary and general election.
This is not the first time
Having two-year terms fits in with this idea of having the people really oversee their elected representatives.
Mitch Kokai, political analyst with the John Locke Foundation
Commissioners have twice asked voters to extend their terms. Both times, in 1992 and 1985, voters said no.
Mitch Kokai, a political analyst with the John Locke Foundation, said extending terms will be a tough sell to voters, especially when North Carolina mayors and legislators serve two-year terms.
“Having two-year terms fits in with this idea of having the people really oversee their elected representatives,” he said.
Who wants it
The proposal is not a partisan issue for commissioners, but it has created some division.
Some of the seven board members who supported the measure in July said it would help them serve their constituents better and longer. Other supporters said they were disillusioned with gearing up for elections so soon after settling into office.
“During the two-year term that we currently serve, we spend a year of that campaigning for the next term,” Dunlap said. “Everybody’s thinking about the next election.”
A four-year term would allow commissioners to finish initiatives and programs they set in motion while in office, he said.
It’s kind of like a progress report.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham
Who doesn’t want it
Two commissioners – Republican Matthew Ridenhour and Democrat Pat Cotham – don’t support the measure. Both say they feel the public should evaluate their performance as often as possible.
“I think a two-year term is better for maintaining that connection between the voter and the elected official,” Ridenhour said.
“It’s like a progress report,” added Cotham. “We really affect lives. I think people need to be able to weigh in and let us know how we’re doing.”
The district people are safe and they rarely have opponents.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham
Five district representatives on the board are incumbents, with Bill James in his 10th straight term and Vice Chair Dumont Clarke in his eighth term. Commissioner Jim Puckett, who regained the District 1 seat last year, had served three terms on the board until he left in 2006 after losing an at-large race.
“(At-large candidates) are more vulnerable,” said Cotham, an at-large commissioner. “The district people are safe and they rarely have opponents.”
I believe it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner George Dunlap
Is there a trend?
Even if voters reject the proposal this election, Dunlap said he feels sentiments are shifting.
Commissioners serve four-year terms in Gwinnett County, Ga., and Broward County, Fla., two similar-sized counties officials have studied in comparison with Mecklenburg when considering pay raises for employees. Another they use is Fairfax County, Va., which has a nine-member board of supervisors elected to four-year terms.
In North Carolina, commissioners in Wake, Buncombe and Guilford counties serve four-year terms. And, in February, Pineville Town Council moved from two terms to staggered four-year terms. Dunlap feels Mecklenburg’s county commissioners are next. “I believe it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”