Charlotte City Council members want to serve ... themselves

Charlotte City Council members want longer terms, and they may bypass voters.
Charlotte City Council members want longer terms, and they may bypass voters. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte City Council is poised to make one of the biggest power grabs in the history of our city. The current council was voted into office on a platform of transparency. Now, in backrooms on the 15th floor of the Government Center, at least five members of the council have decided they deserve four-year terms. Those five, according to WFAE, are James Mitchell, Braxton Winston, Julie Eiselt, LaWana Mayfield and Greg Phipps. Sources tell me that extending the mayor’s term to four years is also on the table.

Running the issue through the most unlikely of all committees (Budget), a measure will soon be brought before the full council for a vote. Unlike the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, which put the issue of four-year terms on the ballot for voters to decide, these council members appear ready to bypass the voters.

The reasoning, quite frankly, doesn’t make sense. Proponents of four-year terms point to the need for new members to learn the job. They say campaigning every two years takes their focus from important work, and that members might be reluctant to vote on controversial issues with an election always approaching.

Allow me to translate: the City Council is important enough to vote on issues of great consequence, but you are not important enough to determine every two years whether or not they should keep their jobs. What works for the N.C. General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives apparently doesn’t work for the Charlotte City Council.

In 2017, three prominent council Democrats were defeated in the primaries. Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts lost for veering too far left. At-large member Claire Fallon voted too often with Republicans (so much for bipartisanship), and long-time District 1 member Patsy Kinsey was perceived to be out of touch. Now some of the very people who took their places aim to insulate themselves from you, the voters. While members of the council may view two-year terms as an annoyance, they are the lynchpin for accountability. They ensure that campaign promises are kept and politicians remain true to their word. They allow voters to affirm their support or make a change. In either circumstance the most important person in the equation, the voter, makes the determination, not the power-hungry politician.

If this policy moves forward, the voters should demand term limits. Charlotte operates under a council-manager format that allows for part-time elected officials. Charlotte has more than 7,000 employees who make sure the city runs efficiently. They make sure our drinking water is safe, our roads are in good condition, and your trash is collected. And they support the mayor and members of council; the council does not do its job alone. In many instances, a staff member responds to citizen emails and phone calls. In fact, the council recently increased staff support.

When I was first elected, I had three kids under five, a full-time job and a working wife. My weeks were busy, but it was the job I begged the voters to give me. I did not complain about the demands of the office; I relished them.

I fundamentally disagree with members of a governing body increasing their term of service. It violates the very principles of democracy an elected official is sworn to uphold. At any level of government, when elected officials believe they are more important than the voters, it is time for them to go.

In a 6 to 5 vote, City Council supports hosting the RNC and Mayor calls for unity.

Smith represented District 6 on the Charlotte City Council from 2013-2017.