It has gotten little notice, but a question on next Tuesday’s ballot would make a significant and harmful change in local government. It asks:
“Shall the structure of the Board of Commissioners be altered to change from two-year terms of office to four-year terms of office?”
There are reasonable arguments on both sides, but voters shouldn’t double Mecklenburg County commissioners’ length of time in office. Instead, they should protect their ability to evaluate commissioners every two years.
Commissioners voted 7-2 in July to ask voters for the longer terms. The question arose at the same time they were mulling a huge pay hike for themselves, an idea they wisely put on hold.
The current two-year terms help ensure that commissioners stay responsive to the public they represent. Charlotte’s mayor serves a two-year term. The City Council serves two-year terms. State legislators serve two-year terms. Even members of Congress serve two-year terms. But county commissioners should get twice that?
Mecklenburg voters are by now familiar with a pattern in which commissioners are more comfortable raising taxes in an off-year than in an election year. If this change is approved, there will be three straight off-years after an election. We like the accountability shorter terms foster.
Democrat George Dunlap, a leading proponent of the longer terms, argues commissioners spend a year of their two-year term campaigning for the next term. But these aren’t exactly U.S. Senate seats. In fact, most commissioners campaign hard for only a few months, if that.
Democrat Dumont Clarke argues that four-year terms would reduce the influence of money in these races. But most of these races involve small amounts of money now, and if anything, a longer term might raise the desirability of a seat and a donor’s incentive to have “his guy” in office for the next four years.
Proponents point out that Mecklenburg is the only N.C. county whose commissioners all serve two-year terms. Perhaps, then, others should follow our example instead of us following theirs.
If Mecklenburg is going to move to four-year terms, it should at least stagger them so that voters have a say on some board members every two years. Or, the county could have a mix of two-year and four-year terms, as some N.C. counties do.
Voters have twice before been asked to extend commissioners’ terms, in 1985 and 1992. Both times they defeated the idea by a wide margin. It boils down to which is more valuable: incumbents’ ability not to have to run so frequently, or voters’ ability to have a frequent say. We say keep your voice.