Inside County Government

Why did plan to double Mecklenburg commissioner terms fail?

Mecklenburg County Commissioners Bill James (left) and George Dunlap supported a measure that would have extended terms for commissioners from two years to four. Voters ultimately rejected the proposal.
Mecklenburg County Commissioners Bill James (left) and George Dunlap supported a measure that would have extended terms for commissioners from two years to four. Voters ultimately rejected the proposal. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Maybe the third time’s not the charm.

Mecklenburg County voters on Tuesday spurned a measure that would have extended the number of years the nine-member board of county commissioners spends in office from two to four. Only about 34 percent of voters were in favor of the change, while nearly 66 percent of voters opposed it.

It’s the third time the board’s asked voters to consider the proposal, and it’s the third time they’ve gotten the same answer: No.

George Dunlap, the Democratic commissioner who introduced the idea, said he wasn’t discouraged by the outcome. He feels that, as the county’s demographics change, so will ideas about longer terms.

So what kept the change from taking effect this time? Could it have been that, after voting 7-2 in July to put the question on the ballot, commissioners were too mum about what they were asking?

They held no fundraisers, created no signs and didn’t take out ads in the newspaper. The proposal didn’t draw much attention until late October, when opposition developed among educators concerned about accountability and taxing authority.

Board members decided not to promote the proposal to avoid appearing “self-serving,” Dunlap said. Yet, ideas of power and complacency were top of mind for some voters on Tuesday.

Take 55-year-old Mike Deal, for example. As he left his Pineville precinct, Deal said two-year terms would keep commissioners “on their toes.”

“They should be prepared for re-election,” he said. “It makes them stay in touch with the constituents.”

They should be prepared for re-election. It makes them stay in touch with the constituents.

Mike Deal, Mecklenburg County voter

If they served four years, Deal said board members would be “more apt to do anything” without reaping the consequences of getting kicked out of office.

That’s partly why Nashota Lytle and Damien Jack, both 36 and voters at Charlotte’s Eastway precinct, said “no” to four-year terms.

“I don’t think it’s wise to keep the same people in office longer,” Lytle said, adding that the county needs fresh perspective and new ideas lest its leadership become stale and stagnant.

To Jack, the motive behind longer terms was akin to “the longer you want to stay in power.”

The proposal did have its share of supporters.

Ginny Allen, 75, and her 80-year-old husband, Arthur Allen, showed up at their Pineville precinct together. They both voted to give commissioners four years in office.

“It takes a year to get used to it,” Ginny Allen said. With more time in office, “you can do a better job. The longer you do it, the better you are at it.”

“They just get going before they have to get ready for another election,” Arthur Allen said.

I feel like you can get more work done in four years versus two.

Lori Garber, Mecklenburg County voter

In Eastway, Lori Garber voted “yes.”

“I feel like you can get more work done in four years versus two,” she said. “How much work can you really get done in two years?”

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