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Davidson Residents To Vote On Longer Terms

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Davidson Town Board members on Tuesday agreed a referendum should be held - at an undetermined future date - on whether to change the town charter to lengthen and stagger the terms of the mayor and town commissioners. Mayor John Woods announced the move during a public hearing at the board's monthly meeting at Town Hall. The board had been considering adopting the change itself. But the mayor said the board had reached a consensus before the meeting that a referendum was the best course, after considering timing issues and hearing comments from citizens. "Though I believe four-year staggered terms have merit, I also believe citizens should exercise their vote through a referendum to change the town charter," the mayor said. Commissioners did not take a formal vote on a referendum, but all five told DavidsonNews.net they support putting the question to citizens. Town Attorney Rick Kline advised the board to wait until it has worked out the date and details of a referendum before it passes a resolution setting a vote. 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. On April 12, the board voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to begin formal discussions and schedule the public hearing. The proposal calls for lengthening the mayor's and commissioners' terms to four years, from the current two years. The change also would stagger commissioners' terms by splitting the five seats into groups of three and two, elected in alternate elections every two years. If the change were adopted, the mayor and commissioner candidates who get the most votes in the next election 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. Under state law, the Town Board could have adopted the charter change itself, as early as its June 14 meeting. As Mr. Brice and the board originally envisioned the process, the change would have taken effect after the Nov. 8 election. Tuesday night's decision to hold a referendum all but ensures any change in officials' terms would not happen this fall. In a presentation at the public hearing, Mr. Brice said there wouldn't be enough time to hold a special referendum before the November election, and it would cost at least $5,000. [If the board had voted on its own, citizens also could have forced a referendum by obtaining signatures of at least 10 percent of the town's registered voters.] Resident Sam Spencer, recently named president of North Carolina Young Democrats, was among several speakers applauding the board's decision to seek a referendum. He said Town Hall always works best when it "is supported by the buy-in of the community... I'm really happy that we are very strongly considering a referendum." PROS AND CONS OF LONGER TERMS Town officials say longer terms would create more stability, give commissioners more time to learn the issues, and boost the town board's effectiveness. The town staff would spend less time on orientation, and board members would have more time to complete long-range projects. Opponents said longer terms disenfranchise voters and make incumbents stronger. Some North Carolina towns Davidson's size have gone to four-year terms. Cornelius did so eight years ago, then switched back. Mooresville's board is elected on staggered four-year terms. A DavidsonNews.net survey over the past two weeks found residents on both sides of the issue. The more pressing question for voters seemed to be how the change would be enacted - an overwhelming majority of those who responded to our survey supported holding a referendum. (See more about the survey in our May 9 preview of the hearing, "Hearing Tues. seeks comment on longer board terms.") WORRIES ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY Speakers during Tuesday's hearing raised a variety of questions about longer terms. Sandy Carnegie, who served on the Town Board from 1983 to 1997, recalled that he had been involved in two previous board discussions about extending commissioners' terms. "Both times it never got off the ground. Both times it was because of accountability. We felt if folks like you, they vote for you again," Mr. Carnegie said. "I don't understand why we need to change it now," he added. Bill Jackson, who ran against Mayor John Woods, said the idea would "take away a part of the franchise of the people." "We pride ourselves on representative in this town. I still can't figure out how you got us on this track," Mr. Jackson said. Rodney Graham, a local home builder who ran for Town Board four years ago, said he sees no need for a change."I would support two-year terms instead of four. It comes down to accountability. It seems like two years has been working," Mr. Graham said. "If you go to four years, it's taking power away from the people. It's taking accountability away from public officials." In his presentation, Mr. Brice told the board that 23 of the state's 39 cities of Davidson's size (between 10,000 and 25,000 residents) now have four-year terms for their governing boards. Resident Kathleen Rose asked Mr. Brice if any of them have limits on the number of terms a board member can serve. Under N.C. law, Mr. Brice said, "We are not allowed to set term limits." Jim Bensman, a Cornelius commissioner, made a rare appearance at the Davidson board meeting, telling the board he thinks it would be a bad idea. He recalled how Cornelius voters adopted the same change in a 2003 referendum, then changed their minds two years later in a second referendum. Said Commissioner Bensman: "We returned to two-year terms because the board felt that the four year term disenfranchised the voters," he said. He said he believes commissioners can learn their jobs quickly, especially if they first get experience on other town boards and committees. He also warned his Davidson counterparts to be careful how they word any ballot question. RELATED COVERAGE AND DOCUMENTS May 9, 2011, "Hearing Tues. seeks comment on longer board terms." April 12, 2011, "Board starts process to lengthen and stagger terms." Nov. 23, 2010, presentation by Town Manager Leamon Brice on the proposal, looking at data from other communities in N.C. Mr. Brice presented an updated version of this presentation Tuesday night, but the town has not made it available. (PDF)