Listen to the voters on four-year City Council terms

It’s healthy for the City Council to hear from citizens regularly.
It’s healthy for the City Council to hear from citizens regularly. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte City Council’s movement toward doubling the length of council members’ terms from two years to four years could play out a number of ways. Here’s our ranking of those ways, from best to worst.

1. Don’t do it. Keep the council’s terms at two years so they are most accountable to the voters, just as the Charlotte mayor, Mecklenburg County commissioners, state legislators and US House members are. A 2011 citizen advisory committee led by Democrat Harvey Gantt and Republican Richard Vinroot, both former mayors, wisely recommended against the move, saying it would try to fix something that wasn’t broken.

It’s a legitimate debate, and we understand the arguments for four-year terms. The principal ones are that council members have a learning curve and find themselves running again before they are even fully versed in city government; and that they are campaigning and raising money for reelection half the time rather than governing. We buy the first argument, at least for new council members; we don’t worry too much about the second. Council members should be able to govern and run their low-profile campaigns simultaneously.

The question boils down to which is more valuable: incumbents’ ability not to have to run so frequently, or voters’ ability to have a frequent say.

2. If they’re going to do it, council members should initiate a voter referendum on the question. Voters deserve a say on such a fundamental change in governance structure.

If council members declined to do so, one would likely be forced upon them. A referendum is required if 5,000 Charlotte voters sign a petition calling for one. We think that would happen.

A referendum is likely to fail. Voters have been asked three times to extend Mecklenburg commissioners’ terms. They overwhelmingly rejected the idea in 1985, 1992 and 2015. WFAE reports that a poll conducted by pro-business group Forward Charlotte last month found voters oppose four-year council terms, 62 percent to 28 percent, with 10 percent undecided.

3. If they’re going to do it, they should at least stagger the terms, so residents are still voting on at least some City Council members every two years. It could be set up like Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board elections, with district members being elected for four-year terms and at-large members (and the mayor) being elected to four-year terms two years later.

4. The worst option: The council ignores the voters and extends terms with no referendum and no staggering.

Charlotte is growing rapidly, and the demands on its elected officials are considerable. It’s understandable that they would like to be insulated from having to mount a campaign to voters every two years.

We think that distraction is worth the accountability shorter terms offer. Public trust in government is low, and Charlotte has had its share of under-performing politicians. Voters need to be able to evaluate their public officials frequently, especially now that near-total one-party rule has removed a check on their power.

Listen to your voters, Council, and put this one on the back burner.