In a surprise vote, Charlotte City Council says no to longer terms for themselves

Should voters get a say on four-year terms for Charlotte City Council?

Charlotte City Council members are divided on whether to have a referendum that would allow voters to say yes or no to its idea of four-year terms, or whether to just make the change themselves.
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Charlotte City Council members are divided on whether to have a referendum that would allow voters to say yes or no to its idea of four-year terms, or whether to just make the change themselves.

Charlotte City Council decided to drop an attempt at doubling the length of members’ terms in a surprise vote Monday night, after some members said they don’t think the public would support such a move.

After months of debate, the council voted 7-3 not to proceed with a referendum on longer terms. Council members Braxton Winston, James Mitchell and Larken Egleston voted in favor of the measure. The referendum, allowing voters to decide whether to extend terms from two years to four years, would have appeared on ballots Nov. 5, timed with this year’s municipal elections.

“This consistently polls at 2-1 against,” said Egleston, who said he only voted to move forward with the plan so council members could hear from the public at a mandatory hearing that would have been held next month. “I certainly haven’t had anyone emailing me saying, ‘God, I hope you do this.’”

While he thinks four-year terms are a good idea, Egleston said, “This is a hell of a way to get there.”

City Council members have long wanted four-year terms, with discussions about the issue going back to the 1980s. It’s one of the perennial questions bubbling around in Charlotte politics, though City Council hasn’t chosen to test the waters with a referendum.

Some City Council members say that having to run an election every two years limits the amount of time that members — who are part-time and make $19,809 in annual salary each — have to learn about complex issues such as the city’s budget, land-use rules and police department oversight. The proposed referendum also would have staggered terms to limit turnover, so that not all members would be up for election every time.

“This is an issue of good governance for an organization with a $2.7 billion budget,” said Winston.

Council member LaWana Mayfield said council members need more time between elections.

“This is not a part-time job,” said Mayfield, who also supports making the council a full-time job with a salary that would allow members not to have outside jobs. “Not everyone is able to adjust to that learning curve. When you only have a two-year cycle, you’re really only working 15, 16 months before you have to run again.”

But Mayfield also voted no, because she said she doesn’t support having a ballot referendum. Mayfield wants the council members to approve longer terms themselves rather than send the issue to voters.

The push for four-year terms was likely to be a tough sell with local voters. There hasn’t been an apparent groundswell of support for longer terms, and some members have questioned why council has spent time on the issue for the past several months.

“There has been no call from the public for this,” said council member Ed Driggs, who has been a staunch opponent of the change. But even council members who think longer terms are a good idea said a November referendum would dominate the public discourse this election season and embroil them in a contentious debate that council is likely to lose.

“I’m also in favor of four-year terms, but I’m wondering ... is this the right time to do it?” council member Greg Phipps asked, pointing to such issues as the city’s budget and the county’s real estate revaluation.

“I’m a little confused why we’re doing this to ourselves, to be honest,” said council member Justin Harlow. “This thing is going to get shot down on a ballot in November. ... This is just a waste of time.”

A similar referendum in 2015 from Mecklenburg County commissioners seeking to extend their terms to four years failed by a 2-1 margin at the ballot box. Like City Council, county commissioners have also long tried to extend their terms, though without success: Referendums for four-year terms failed in the 1980s and 1990s as well.

Mayor Vi Lyles said she was unwilling to risk a similar failure, and that there’s not enough time to organize a campaign to educate voters on the issue.

“I fully support the idea of four-year staggered terms for the mayor and City Council,” said Lyles. “I don’t know that we’ve asked enough people to validate this in a way that would make this successful. ... I guess I’m not prepared to fail on this.”

Like Mayfield, some other council members said that they should simply vote to extend their terms themselves. City Council has the power to do so, but such action to lengthen their terms would then be subject to a recall referendum by voters if opponents gathered 5,000 petition signatures.

“I wish this wasn’t something that would get pushed to the ballot,” said Winston. “I wish we could do it by council vote.”

Term lengths for local officials vary widely, both across North Carolina and nationwide. Durham, Asheville, Cary, Greensboro, Wilmington, Gastonia and Winston-Salem have four-year terms, along with Indianapolis, Nashville, Denver, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta, among others. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education members also serve for four years.

But Raleigh has two-year terms, along with Fort Worth and Dallas (though the Dallas mayor has a four-year term).

Last year, Fayetteville City Council members tried to switch to four-year terms with a referendum, but the measure was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin.

Before the vote, Egleston urged his colleagues not to bring back the idea of four-year terms anytime soon.

“If this dies tonight,” he said, “whoever is sitting around the dais next term, don’t bring it back to life.”

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.