For the first time, Mecklenburg County commissioners have decided how one of their own will vote on a 10-year road plan that includes toll lanes – a tactic Charlotte City Council has used on regional transportation projects for 30 years.
By a 7-2 split, commissioners on Tuesday passed a policy allowing them to direct the vote of their representative on the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.
Then, in an unprecedented move, they voted 5-4 to order Vice Chair Dumont Clarke to vote against the state Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), despite the N.C. Department of Transportation’s claims that doing so risks $2 billion worth of road improvement projects that include Brookshire Freeway and the Blue Line Extension.
That did little to sway Republican commissioner Jim Puckett, who pushed the policy change and a board vote against the plan as a “bully pulpit” that will draw attention to the burden taxpayers face should the state build express lanes from Charlotte to Mooresville.
The TIP contains a number of road projects for Mecklenburg, Iredell and Union counties, including the plan to build toll lanes on Interstate 77. “A significant piece of (the TIP) devastates my part of the world,” Puckett said.
Board Chair Trevor Fuller, who dissented on the TIP vote, said it was “dangerous to destroy an entire plan ... just to make a statement.” After commissioners voted against the TIP, Fuller said: “I regret that we have taken this step. I think we will regret it.”
The lengthy conversation Tuesday night, which at some points grew heated, started when Puckett asked commissioners to consider a policy that would allow them to direct Clarke’s vote in his capacity as the CRTPO delegate. He said the delegate’s vote should reflect the majority opinion of the board, not just his own.
The suggestion made some commissioners uneasy as they questioned the ethics of requiring an elected official to vote a certain way.
The CRTPO will vote Aug. 19 on the TIP, which the N.C. Board of Transportation approved in June. If the CRTPO approves the plan, the Federal Highway Administration will adopt it.
Compared to the city of Charlotte, the county has minimal voting power on the board. Clarke gets two votes while the city representative, Charlotte Councilwoman Vi Lyles, gets 31. A total of 68 votes are cast. Delegates are unable to vote on only one piece of the TIP – it’s all or nothing.
County attorney Marvin Bethune said since the county seat on the CRTPO belongs to the full board, not just Clarke, commissioners can “tell your representative how you want your representative to vote.”
Since the eighties, Charlotte City Council has directed the vote of its representative to the CRTPO on a case-by-case basis, without a formal policy, deputy city attorney Carolyn Johnson said. “More often that not,” that delegate sought the council’s input, she said.
The town of Stallings also directed its delegate’s vote when Lynda Paxton was mayor from 2005 to 2013, CRTPO Secretary Bob Cook said.
“It makes perfect sense for commissioners to set the policy that an ambassador should follow,” said Mitch Kokai, political analyst with the conservative John Locke Foundation.
But it gets dicey if the delegate’s constituents disagrees with the board on an issue.
“If the majority of the board is saying you have to vote against your constituents...then the commissioner is in a bind,” Kokai said.
Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov