Against the wishes of Cabarrus County’s five commissioners, Republican Rep. Larry Pittman of Concord filed a bill this month that would restructure their board – even after Pittman told the commissioners that he would delay the action.
For decades, Cabarrus’ board of commissioners has been composed of five members elected at-large, or countywide. Under Pittman’s bill, the board would be expanded by two commissioners with six elected in districts and one at-large starting in 2018.
Commissioners Chairman Steve Morris said his board met with the Cabarrus legislative delegation March 13, when all five commissioners expressed misgivings after Pittman brought up the bill “out of the blue.”
The local bill follows others that have restructured the way commissioners in Wake County are chosen and would change the structure of the Greensboro City Council, the boundaries of its districts and the mayor’s powers. Another bill would change school board elections in Cherokee and Rutherford counties to partisan votes.
Most of the bills are from Republicans. Democrats have bemoaned that Republicans are trying to rig elections in their favor.
In Cabarrus, where for years there’s been in-fighting in the Republican Party between conservative and more moderate members, the issue is different. All five commissioners are Republicans. So is Pittman. When he filed the bill last Wednesday, he included Republican Rep. Carl Ford of China Grove as a co-sponsor. Ford’s name was removed from the bill submitted for a first reading in the House on Thursday.
Pittman’s bill passed first reading in the House on Thursday and was sent to the elections committee.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who chairs the Elections Committee, said the bill’s fate could hinge on support from Cabarrus County’s other House member, Rep. Linda Johnson.
Lewis said when the local delegation is united behind a so-called local bill, it’s got a good chance for a committee hearing. If not, it’s more problematic. Johnson could not be reached.
In Mecklenburg County, commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said restructuring has been suggested for the nine-member board he sits on, but he considers that a remote possibility. He said he’s concerned that state legislators are spending so much time on the issue.
“We’ve got serious budget issues and serious economic development issues facing the state and any attention being paid to the structure of local governments is a distraction,” Fuller said. “It’s become political in nature.”
Public input requested
Pittman, a pastor, emailed the Observer that he doesn’t give phone interviews to the media, but is usually willing to answer questions by email. However, he declined to answer Observer questions by email.
At the March 13 meeting, Pittman and Ford told commissioners that they’d heard frustrations from constituents who felt underrepresented by the current board of five, according to a story in the Independent Tribune of Concord.
Commissioners expressed their concerns about the bill.
“Our consensus was that this is something we should take a look at, but we needed to solicit citizen input,” Morris said. “Do we want to take away the right of all citizens in Cabarrus County to vote for all their commissioners without public input? We need to have public meetings, at least a public hearing, and create awareness so that people have the opportunity to express their opinions on this issue.”
After finding no support from commissioners, Pittman told them he wouldn’t file the bill this term, said Morris and commissioners Grace Mynatt and Diane Honeycutt.
“That’s how we left that meeting,” Morris said. “Then, apparently, Rep. Pittman had a change of heart.”
After filing his bill, Pittman emailed the five commissioners and other Cabarrus officials explaining why he did.
He wrote that after a story about his proposal appeared in the Concord newspaper, he heard from voters encouraging him to go ahead and file the bill during the current term.
He didn’t say how many people voiced their opinions, but said it was “10 to 1” in favor of filing the bill.
‘Citizens deserve better’
Mynatt said the county has grown to the point that another two commissioners might be beneficial. Honeycutt said she “could live with seven.”
Like Morris, both prefer countywide elections instead of districts.
Honeycutt said she found out Pittman was considering such a bill when a legislative staff attorney, not Pittman, emailed details for commissioners to consider before the March 13 meeting. She said Pittman didn’t generate any research to show why he thought the change was necessary.
“I’ve heard Larry say many times government ought to stay out of people’s business,” Honeycutt said. “But instead of honoring the feelings of five commissioners elected by the people, he took the initiative to file a bill 18 days after he said he wouldn’t.” Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.