Politics & Government

Charlotte City Council to vote on moving forward with four-year terms this month

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 is poised to start the process for a referendum that would let voters decide if their terms should be extended to four years.

While a few members think the council should take a vote to extend their terms from two to four years, voters could later nullify that move with a referendum if they collected 5,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. A majority of council members believe they should go straight to voters for a November referendum on the issue, however.

On Monday, council members decided to vote on whether to start the referendum process at their meeting next week. And several said they’re ready to move on one way or another, after months of discussion at council and committee meetings.

“City Council has the legal ability to make a decision on four-year terms,” said council member LaWana Mayfield, who thinks council should vote on four-year terms themselves instead of leaving it to a voter referendum. “There’s a conversation between political will and political ability. ... We have been having this conversation since 2013.”

Council member Tariq Bokhari, who opposes four-year terms, urged the council to stop discussing the issue, since a majority of members clearly support it.

“I don’t think the taxpayers or voters are screaming for this,” said Bokhari. “Can we just figure out how to stop talking about this?”

Council member James Mitchell agreed.

“We need to move on,” said Mitchell. “This is not public service.”

Council voted 8-3 in favor of putting the referendum question on their agenda next week, with Bokhari, Mayfield and Ed Driggs voting no.

If City Council decides to schedule a referendum for voters, they will have to hold a public hearing within 45 days.

It’s likely that such a move would pass if City Council voted on it themselves, as a majority of members have said they think it’s a good idea. With elections every two years, City Council members complain that they really only get about a year and a half each term to learn about complex issues and actually govern before the campaign season cranks back up.

The terms would also be staggered, so that only a third or so of members would be up for reelection every cycle. That could prevent the large-scale turnover that’s possible now, with every seat up for a vote every two years.

But if council members decided to change the length of their terms unilaterally, the action would be subject to a recall referendum if opponents gathered 5,000 signatures. Council members acknowledge that’s a threshold opponents of longer terms could likely clear, and that a referendum on four-year terms is likely to see voters weigh in with a “no.”

In 2015, Mecklenburg County commissioners asked voters to extend their terms from two to four years, via a referendum. That measure lost by a 2-1 margin, with 66 percent of voters opposed to the change.

Many of Charlotte’s peer cities have four-year terms for local elected officials, including Indianapolis, Nashville, Denver, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta. Others, such as Fort Worth, Dallas, Raleigh and Durham, have two-year terms.

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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.

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