A lot has changed in the 20 years since I first wrote about Civics 101.
▪ Charlotte has had six mayors.
▪ Seven people have chaired Mecklenburg County’s board of commissioners.
▪ And Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has gone through six superintendents – with another on the way.
But through it all, “Civics” has endured.
Since its debut in January 1997, hundreds of people have taken the course sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Some, including Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and state Sen. Joyce Waddell, have gone on to public office.
The course, covering the city, county, schools, courts and the media, is designed to acquaint people with their local government. The sessions are interactive. Speakers such as former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot help explain city government.
“It is obvious that people don’t know very much about how their government operates,” the late Betty Seizinger, a class founder, said in 1996. “But we think they would like to.”
Maybe. But while Charlotte’s population has nearly doubled – fast-approaching a million – studies have shown civic engagement has declined.
One measure is voter turnout in local elections. In 1997, turnout in Charlotte’s city election was 24 percent. In 2015 it was 15 percent. Primary turnout is even more abysmal.
Another problem is the complexity of a system that can seem as impenetrable as Charlotte’s street grid.
From judges to mayors to soil and water commissioners, there are more than 100 elected officials in Mecklenburg County. And they run in dozens of overlapping voting districts.
Jeff Tarte is a Republican senator from Cornelius, where he used to be the mayor. He says local government is where things happen.
“I always tell people that’s more important than the presidency in some ways,” he said. “You basically have three to five people who can tax you blindly and take your property through eminent domain. So you have to pay attention.”
Civics 101 is one way to do that.
To mark the 20th anniversary, test your local civics IQ with this quiz.
Registration is open for the month-long Civics 101. The price for five sessions including a catered dinner at the final session, is $60. To sign up go to www.goleaguego.org/Civics.html.
Sessions go from 6:15 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The schedule:
▪ Feb. 7: County government, at Government Center, 600 E. 4th St.
▪ Feb. 14: CMS school board, at Government Center.
▪ Feb. 20: City government, at Government Center.
▪ Feb. 28: Courts, at the county courthouse, 832 E. 4th St.
▪ Mar. 7: Graduation and “Meet the Press,” at The Charlotte Observer, 550 S. Caldwell St.