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Davidson Mulls Longer Terms For Mayor, Commissioners

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Should Davidson revise its town charter to extend and stagger the terms of future mayors and commissioners? A public hearing at Tuesday night's Town Board meeting will seek citizen comment on the proposal. DavidsonNews.net readers who responded to a recent survey about the proposed charter changes leaned toward not changing commissioners' terms and overwhelmingly thought the matter should be put to a vote of citizens. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at Town Hall, 216 S. Main St. Also on the agenda is a second public hearing, on the 2011-12 Town Budget. Town Manager Leamon Brice is currently proposing a $9 million budget that keeps Davidson's tax rate flat, at 36.5 cents per $100 dollars of value. That proposal comes after Mecklenburg County's recent revaluation, which boosted property values in Davidson about 25 percent on average - more than that in some neighborhoods, including areas closer to downtown. Assessed values rose less, or in some cases stayed close to unchanged, in other areas including the River Run neighborhood. The full agenda is available on the town website. CHARTER CHANGES The town has been considering changing board members' terms since last fall, when Town Manager Leamon Brice gave a presentation at a Town Board retreat. (See links to DavidsonNews.net's past coverage below.) On April 12, the Town Board voted unanimously in favor of a resolution signaling its intention to change the town charter to allow four-year terms for the mayor and commissioners, instead of two-year terms. The change also would stagger commissioners' terms by splitting the seats into three and two elected in alternate elections every two years. (Download a PDF copy of the April 12 resolution here) Charter amendment timetable Here's a timetable of how the town might proceed in changing its charter to allow longer, staggered commissioners' terms. Nov. 23 - Idea presented at Town Board work session April 12, 2011 - Board adopted resolution of intent April 27, 2011 - Public hearing notice published May 10, 2011 - Public Hearing June 14, 2011 - Adopt Ordinance amending charter July 1 - 15, 2011 - Town board/mayor candidate filing Nov. 8, 2011 - Election Dec. 13, 2011 - 2 members & mayor-elect take oath for 4 year terms; 3 members take oath for 2 year terms All future terms would be 4 years. Cornelius tried a similar change about eight years ago, then switched back. In November 2005, county election results showed that 1,517 Cornelius voters, or 60 percent, voted to go back to the former system of two-year terms. At the time, supporters of reverting to two-year terms said they were most concerned about the heightened accountability that goes with 2-year terms, vs. 4-year terms. Currently all five commissioners and the mayor are elected every two years. A charter change this June would not alter the terms for the current board; all their seats are up for election again this fall. But it would affect the length of any additional terms incumbents win: The mayor and commissioner candidates who get the most votes on Nov. 1 would get 4-year terms. Candidates who finished third through fifth would get two-year terms, and their seats would be up for grabs again in two years. After that, those seats would be four-year terms. Town officials say longer terms would create more stability, give commissioners more time to learn the issues, and boost the experience and effectiveness of the elected body. They say it also would reduce commissioners' campaign costs, reduce town staff time devoted to orientation, and give board members more time to lead and complete long-range projects. SHOULD CITIZENS VOTE? Some Davidson residents have raised concerns about the idea. Some worry that four-year terms would reduce commissioners' accountability. Others think citizens should have a chance to vote on the change. Some of those who responded to our recent survey cited the town's purchase (with Mooresville) of the MI-Connection cable system - which was not put to a citizen vote - as a reason why a referendum is needed. As one citizen wrote: "The Town Board made a major mistake by not putting MI-Connection to referendum, so it shouldn't make another one here." The Town Board could vote on the proposal at its June 14 meeting, at 6 p.m. at Town Hall. Under state law, the board can enact the change itself, after a public hearing and vote. Some local residents think it should be put to a referendum, and are considering a petition drive calling for a citizen vote. For a referendum, 10 percent of registered voters in town must sign a petition seeking a vote. The county board of elections currently lists 7,407 registered voters in Davidson, so a petition likely would need about 750 signatures. OUR SURVEY RESULTS DavidsonNews.net conducted an online survey over the past two weeks to solicit citizen opinions on the matter. A total of 133 readers responded. First, a word about online surveys: Online surveys are not a valid survey of public opinion and don't necessarily reflect overall sentiment in the community. In the case of this survey, 1) it's not large enough. We had 133 respondents, far fewer than the 1,000 preferred by professional polling firms.) 2) Also, it's not random. Those who took our survey decided themselves whether to answer. That process is open to manipulation, as when one group urges its members or supporters to take the survey. So it's not possible to use our results to say what Davidson voters think about commissioners' terms. However, we also asked voters to write down their thoughts about the proposal. Those written responses offer a glimpse at what we're thinking, on one side or the other. One final note: Our survey did have safeguards to keep users from taking the survey more than once. For what it's worth, here's a summary of DavidsonNews.net's survey. LONGER TERMS - Seventy-eight readers, or 57 percent, said they don't support longer terms for board members. Another 48 (36 percent) support the idea. Nine (or about 7 percent) had no opinion. REFERENDUM? - 108 of the 133 voters, or 81 percent, said they think the charter changes should go to a referendum. Another 21 thought it would be OK for the Town Board to enact the change alone. Four readers had no opinion. COMMENTS: Thirty one of those who responded offered written comments. We did not ask readers' names on this poll, so their comments are anonymous. While we don't normally allow anonymous comments on DavidsonNews.net, we think there's some value for both citizens and town officials to read these. Here they are: COMMENTS: LONGER TERMS - There is a learning curve to any job. I'd rather see elected officials spending time doing the work of governing rather than doing the work of campaigning. - Once you get past the learning [curve] your time in office is up. Giving individuals the opportunity to take the knowledge they have learned and move forward to benefit the town can only be in our favor. - There is no logical reason for extensions. If you do a good job the public will vote you back in. The argument that it takes a long time to get up to speed reflects on the candidates ability and qualifications. The argument concerning costs is also irrelevant. We are a small town. The candidates have the choice on what they want to spend - If we have to go to 4-year terms, I like the Town of Boone model where there are staggered terms, the top two finishers in each election get a four-year term, and the third-place finisher gets a two-year term and has to run in the next election. But why are we considering this? - The only way I would support longer terms is if the current mayor and commissioners resigned from the board for two years. The fact that they are even considering this is shocking. Put it to a vote to go live with it in 4 years. - It takes time to learn the job. Turnover has not been that high in the past. If the terms are longer, they should most definitely be staggered. - This is not like the US House of Representatives where campaigns take a year and cost exhorbitant amounts and they still only get two years. I prefer the accountability of the two year terms. - Given the turmoil of the last several years, the current admin must be held accountable and the voters need to have the chance to throw some of the flotsam and jetsam from the board. - I support the 4 year terms and the staggering of terms. - I would support longer terms if the Town Board had a better track record of listening to the voters. Mi-Connection is a great example where the majority of the public clearly did not want the town to be in the telecom business, yet commissioners voted for it anyway. Longer terms, however, do allow council members to be more engaged in the management of issues, making the staff more accountable to the council. - I would support longer terms ONLY if there were term limits. - Bad idea. Reduces accountability. - More continuity. Less campaigning. - Two-year terms do not seem to affect the consistency of the board. There are several long-serving members who provide continuity, for better or worse. - This looks like a bunch of elected officials just trying to protect their fiefdom. - If they want longer terms, then do a good job and get reelected multiple times. - With DavidsonNews.net in place to poke a nosy local nose into their doings up close and personal every week, and keep things public, I think it is probably a good idea to lengthen the terms. Thanks for strengthening our civic life, DNews! - "The governing boards of towns in Mecklenburg-from Cornelius to Matthews to the city of Charlotte-are all elected to two-year terms, along with their mayors. The Mecklenburg County commissioners are elected for two-year terms. Both houses of the state legislature (Senate and House)are elected for two-year terms. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms. Why? In our republic, the people want a short leash on those in power-to hold them more accountable." - Longer terms serve to disenfranchise the voter. The idea that a Commissioner would be more effective is a myth. Incumbents have a huge advantage in elections anyway, - If those elected will cease agreeing on votes ahead of time in order to present smiling unanimity. - "Taxation without representation is Tyranny!" - Elected officials need to be accountable every 2 years-no longer. - I would like to see staggered terms. That would keep a continuity to the board. - Not for current incumbents. (Editor's note: The proposal would not lengthen the terms of any seated commissioner or the mayor. All must run for re-election this fall. See above.) - Nor do I support a socialistic Dictatorship now governing our town. This is not Cuba, please. - I do NOT support longer terms but I DO support staggered terms - The four-year terms will create more stability and better experienced elected leaders. - At least we have the option of throwing the bums out every 2 years if we don't like what we have. - Look at the ongoing damage a short-term elected official has done with respect to our town's healthy financials when (without a vote from the commoners) has sunk us in debt and raised our taxes, no matter what title you may call it and shuffling around local people in the decision making positions is too little to late. One (2-year term) is more than enough. - It's high time we did this. - Commissioners are often relatively unknown and not vetted like higher office candidates. Keeping term ... to two years minimizes impact a person can have if they turn out not to be effective. If they are effective they will not have to spend much to campaign and should be re-elected on merit and record. COMMENTS: SHOULD TOWN BOARD OR VOTERS DECIDE? - The people's voice needs to be heard directly on matters that affect our governing process. - It is a change to our CHARTER. That should be a public vote - Any time the voting populace is deprived of an electoral franchise - in this case the right to vote for town officials bi-annually - the vote should be put to the people. The Town Board made a major mistake by not putting MI-Connection to referendum, so it shouldn't make another one here. -The town charter is not unlike the constitution. State statutes my allow the leadership to set their own terms, but it goes against the principle of representative democarcy. The voters shoul have an opportunity to give the leaders their guidance. - After the well documented mistakes the Board has made re M-I Connection, this move to extend their own terms is audacious. I know each of them personally and I am surprised at their hubris, their lack of how this issue is viewed and their absolute cynicism to vote on it themselves. - I don't care but it might be wise politically to have a referendum. How much would that cost? - It is morally corrupt for the current board to unilaterally extend their own term given the current financial mess we find ourselves in. It would be unconscionable. - Politically, I think that it is a mistake for the board to take this action unilaterally even though it can do so under the statute. - Board members votes/actions make them accountable, a referendum does not. The problem with this and previous board is they are making bad decisions such as the Mi-Connection purchase that is financially ruining our community. It's peculiar that a board destroying our community believes they deserve longer terms. This is a George Orwell story gone bad; incompetence is rewarded with greater longevity. (Editor's note: Four of the five current commissioners were elected after the MI-Connection purchase.) - A referendum takes away any hint of self interest on the part of current members. - Boards are elected to make decisions. Paying for a referendum is an unnecessary expense. - The Town of Davidson should allow its citizens to vote on this important matter. We weren't allowed to vote on the purchase of MI-Connection. This trend by the Town in usurping the voice of the people by not allowing us to vote on important matters should stop. ... Now. - If the town government wants to take power away from the people, they at least need to let the people agree to it via referendum. - I think the specter of a referendum will likely accomplish the same purposes as holding an actual referendum with the associated costs in money and investment. To wit: 1) To engage the electorate in the public discourse at every possible turn. 2) To not give any one politician or group of them the idea that we're not watching them like a hawk, see? See DNews kudos above: Thanks for the early/often updates!" - To effect a constitutional change, the approval of the electorate should be sought. NOT to do so is anti-democratic in the extreme, by allowing current Town Board members to unilaterally extend their terms in office-thereby removing citizens from the process. No other level of government could get away with such a "putsch." Imagine Congress amending the Constitution to lengthen House terms from two-to-four years, without requiring ratification by 3/4 of the State legislatures." - A referendum should be required. Otherwise those who stand to benefit by the longer terms get to decide. It is a clear conflict of interest. - Let the people choose - Referendums are too expensive. - Taxpayers are affected and likely would have made a better choice on voting town residents into indebtedness and losing excellent Parks & Rec employees. Let's hear from more people who will be affected on this issue. - Longer terms will result in less accountability from some of the same folks that gave us conflict of interest with the MI-Connection cable TV fiasco! - Did our board think they could get by with this socialistic autocratic trick? We need to vote them out and the sooner the better. - The citizens of Davidson have been left out of major decisions in the past. I support a ballot referendum for fiscal issues and issues involving election of officials. -We elect our Commissioners to make decisions and this is well within the reasonable decisions we ask them to make on behalf of our community. - the voters should be the town board's guiding light, not the other way around. - do not give any Davidson board anymore freedom of making decisions on the commoners behalf. Look at what they have done with our small town future, riddled it with debt of over $92,000,000. we need a new clean sweep and bring in people that will represent all of us not just the priviledged. -Why make this an issue to fight over? Just do it; it's for the best for everyone. Saves everyone have to gear up for an election every two years. -This is a major change in the way Davidson residents are represented. It should be decided by the voters. - I strongly oppose making any such change without a vote of the citizenry, which would be the ONLY way it could ever be made legitimately. - Unfortunately our town board has proven to make very bad decisions on behalf of the citizens of Davidson, i.e., MI-Connection. The people of Davidson are going to be negatively impacted for potentially a generation based on a bad decision by a board. The citizens of Davidson would have never allowed this acquistion to take place had hearings been held and a healthy debate would have taken place. (Editor's note: Public hearings were held on the MI-Connection purchase, though citizens did not have a chance to vote.) - This should not be changed without input from the voters and citizens of the town of Davidson. ... We've had enough done TO us already (MI-Connection, case in point) - I can't imagine that there could be a change in the town's charter without a referendum. I would say that this would show complete disregard for voters and should not be tolerated. RELATED COVERAGE April 28, 2011, "Should longer board terms be put to a referendum?" - Article soliciting participation in DavidsonNews.net's survey. April 12, 2011, "Board starts process to lengthen and stagger terms" - report on the April 12 board meeting where the board voted 5-0 to move ahead with the charter change. Nov. 29, 2010, "Town starts a discussion on longer board terms." - Commentary by resident Rodney Graham. Nov. 22, 2010, Board ponders: Should terms be extended, staggered?" Town Manager Leamon Brice's presentation about the charter changes from the Nov. 23 Town Board meeting (PDF) CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the date of the November election. It is Nov. 8.