Politics & Government

League of Women Voters offers primer on Mecklenburg County government

What’s the difference between Superior Court and District Court?

Who draws the attendance zones for your kid’s school?

Why aren’t there any county police? Or city parks?

If you’ve been wondering about any of those things, you can probably find the answers through Civics 101.

Entering its 19th year, Civics 101 is the annual introduction to local government sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Registration is open for weekly classes that start Feb. 2. Enrollment, on a first-come basis, is limited to 60. Registration is $50. To sign up go to www.goleaguego.org.

“It remains a fantastic gateway to finding out more about local government in Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” says former City Council member Warren Cooksey, who went on to teach the course a few years after taking it.

League President Marta Carvajal says while national politics usually gets the lion’s share of attention, local government often has a bigger impact on daily lives.

“We think residents are more likely to follow local government and vote in local elections if they understand how each organization works,” she says.

Since the first Civics 101in 1996, Mecklenburg County has almost doubled in population with a surge of newcomers coming to the county. Some evidence suggests many of those newcomers have yet to plug into local government.

In November, only 39 percent of Mecklenburg voters went to the polls. Only six of the state’s 100 counties saw smaller turnout.

And in Charlotte’s 2013 mayoral election, less than 18 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

“I think it is confusing for newcomers,” says Jennifer Roberts, who took the course a decade ago. “The more people feel like they understand how the different groups work together and where the different areas of responsibility lie … I find they feel much better about government.”

Roberts went on to serve as chair of the county commissioners. She plans to help teach this year’s Civics 101on county government.

Roberts and Cooksey aren’t the only graduates who have gone into local government. Democrats LaWana Mayfield and James “Smuggie” Mitchell also were elected to the Charlotte City Council.

Courses generally feature a visit to the board being covered, say, a City Council meeting. Guest speakers offer their own expertise.

This year, former mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock Jr. will help explain city government. Superior Court Judge Bob Bell and newly elected Sheriff Irwin Carmichael will discuss the court system. And Observer Editor Rick Thames will describe how media cover government.

Cooksey says he often runs into Civics 101 alumni. And Roberts says the course can demystify a complex, sometimes confounding system.

“When you understand it a little better, I think it alleviates some of the frustration,” she says.