Voters to decide on doubling Mecklenburg commissioner terms to 4 years

Mecklenburg commissioners Bill James (left) and George Dunlap support a referendum on extending board terms.
Mecklenburg commissioners Bill James (left) and George Dunlap support a referendum on extending board terms. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Voters will decide in November whether to double terms for Mecklenburg County commissioners from two years to four years. Commissioners approved on Tuesday putting the question on the ballot.

Feeling disillusioned with running for re-election within months of taking office, seven commissioners threw their support behind the idea. Two others – Republican Matthew Ridenhour and Democrat Pat Cotham – dissented, saying citizens have a right to frequently evaluate their performance.

The ballot measure would not change district boundaries or the board’s formation.

Democratic commissioner George Dunlap introduced the idea last month to bring Mecklenburg in line with the rest of the state. He stressed the referendum was not partisan or political. Two Republican commissioners, Jim Puckett and Bill James, co-sponsored the proposal.

“We’re not going to be out campaigning for this resolution ... we’re not going to formalize a committee to raise money to convince voters to vote for it,” Dunlap said. “We are going to educate people about what the resolution says and means for Mecklenburg County.”

Feelings that Mecklenburg is out of step with the rest of the state motivate commissioners’ push for the proposal.

Mecklenburg is the only county of 100 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.

Still, political observers say the idea to extend terms will be a tough sell to voters.

“I’m hard-pressed to say it’s impossible to do the job well in a two-year term because members of our General Assembly, many mayors across North Carolina face that same sort of two-year cycle,” said Mitch Kokai, political analyst with the conservative John Locke Foundation. “Having two-year terms fits in with this idea of having the people really oversee their elected representatives.”

Supporters of longer terms think two years isn’t long enough to effectively lead.

“Most commissioners spend their first year learning the job” and the second year running for re-election, Dunlap said. Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke said longer terms will depress “the influence of money in politics” because commissioners would campaign less.

Newly elected commissioners are “just hitting their stride by year two, especially in a large jurisdiction like Mecklenburg with complex government and a large budget,” said Carl Stenberg, who specializes in public administration at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government. “(They) oftentimes find it’s a much more demanding job in terms of their time commitments, homework they have to do, number of meetings they have to attend.”

Longer terms would allow them to build a record on certain issues, such as tax policy, whereas an election every other year “may be more based on personalities than their record,” he said.

Change of heart

Commissioners have unsuccessfully tried extending their terms in the past. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea twice, in 1992 and 1985. Any time the topic has come up since, commissioner Jim Puckett has opposed it. He’s since changed his outlook.

“I would say (two-year terms) would be worth having if the seats were changing hands,” Puckett said Wednesday, citing his own comeback on the board last year after being away for eight years. “But when I look across the dais, I see that the same people are elected over and over and over again.”

For Republicans such as him, Puckett said four-year terms could be a way to stall the Democratic Party’s growing influence in the county.

“There’s something to be said politically to delaying the inevitable (with) longer terms,” he said.

Kokai of the John Locke Foundation thinks garnering voter support for the measure will be “just as tough now” as it was decades ago.

“People like to have the opportunity to have a check on the government as frequently as possible,” he said. “If you have a four-year term, you might do something that’s particularly unpopular in the first year, and by the fourth year, people have forgotten about that.”

While he said Dunlap made a valid argument, Ridenhour opposes the idea: “I still think there is an advantage to the citizen being able to vote on their elected representatives more frequently,” he said.

Democrat Cotham said she hopes voters reject the measure again. She compared commissioners’ election cycle to a business, saying companies don’t wait four years to evaluate a new employee’s performance.

“I think people have a right to evaluate us,” she said. “I think it’s helpful we know where we stand with them.”

Benefit to at-large members

She suggested the measure benefits at-large commissioners, whose seats are most in jeopardy when compared with their colleagues who represent districts. “District representatives rarely have opponents, whereas at-large typically do” in primary and general elections, she said.

Board Chairman Trevor Fuller, who came in third in voting among five at-large candidates last election, said those races are more competitive, but district representatives don’t work less than their at-large peers. They all contend with constraints of serving the public for only two years, he said.

“We’re not getting as much out of folks,” he said, “who serve when you’re only able to work on matters for a short period of time.”

McFadden: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @JmcfaddenObsGov