Mecklenburg commissioners consider doubling the length of their terms

Mecklenburg County commissioners are considering placing a referendum on the November ballot to expand the length of their terms from two to four years.

The proposed change, introduced by Democratic commissioner George Dunlap, wouldn’t alter the board’s composition with nine commissioners, three at-large elected countywide and six representing districts, according to the resolution first shown to commissioners on Tuesday.

District boundaries would be unchanged.

Dunlap said Wednesday he’s proposing the change because the Mecklenburg board is the only one in North Carolina with strictly two-year terms.

A chart by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners shows that 91 of 100 counties elect commissioners every four years, many with staggered terms; eight counties have a mix of two-year and four-year commissioners and only Mecklenburg has all two-year terms.

“We are out of sync with the rest of the state,” Dunlap said. “My only intention is to bring us in with most of the other counties. I’m not trying to make it controversial; I’m not trying to make it partisan. If the voters, Democrats or Republicans, don’t support it then we’re not going to move forward with it.

“There’s nothing political about it.”

State law requires voters to approve any structural changes to their board of commissioners. Dunlap said commissioners have until August to put the referendum on the ballot.

Voters have weighed in on the issue before – in 1992 and 1985 – and overwhelmingly rejected the change.

During Republican commissioner Jim Puckett’s first stint on the board that ended in 2007, there was a move to take it to voters again. That time, it didn’t get past commissioners.

Puckett didn’t support the change then, but said he would now – largely for practical reasons.

“Because of the way our primaries are set up (in the spring), you’re literally running for office every 13 months,” said Puckett, who owns an industrial painting company. “You’re elected in November and sworn in in December, work through the next year and then you file in January or February, and you’re off campaigning again.

“There are so many more people and groups you have to reach. It’s very hard to be an engaged business person or hold a job and do your job as commissioner and have to campaign every 13 months.”

Commissioner Pat Cotham said she’s against changing the length of terms, primarily because commissioners “are more accountable” to voters if they’re elected every two years.

Board Chairman Trevor Fuller said he doesn’t know how he’ll vote on the resolution, but understands both sides. On one side, commissioners performing poorly can be voted out in two years. Yet there are advantages of having four years to squire through an initiative.

“Four years allow you to really see things through in a way you can’t do as effectively with two-year terms,” he said. “ ... Besides, it’s tremendously draining to campaign while you’re trying to work – and serve the people.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061