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Will Charlotte City Council Approve Four-Year Terms?

The Charlotte City Council will vote on switching to four-year terms. The council's budget committee agreed to send the issue to the full council.
Steve Harrison
The Charlotte City Council will vote on switching to four-year terms. The council's budget committee agreed to send the issue to the full council.

Frustrated by the demands of running for re-election every two years,  Charlotte City Council members are considering switching to four-year terms.

The City Council's budget committee debated the issue last week, and five of the council's 11 members said they support a longer term. Three other council members said they would consider making the change.

City Council member James Mitchell, a Democrat, is the most senior member of the council. He supports longer terms.

“You will tell staff 'don’t bring anything controversial on the agenda,' and then you will be campaigning,” Mitchell said about the second year of a two-year term. “Look at our schedule now. We file in July. We will shut down city government in January. We’ll do the retreat —  honest conversation — we’ll do the retreat, and then we’ll start campaign mode in March of next year.”

Five council members said they support four-year terms: Braxton Winston, Julie Eiselt, LaWana Mayfield, Greg Phipps and Mitchell.

Four other council members either said they haven't made up their mind or are open to the idea: Dimple Ajmera, Larken Egleston, Justin Harlow and Matt Newton.

The council's two Republicans, Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, said they are mostly against longer terms.

It would be the city’s first look at the issue since 2011 when a blue ribbon panel led by former mayors Harvey Gantt and Richard Vinroot recommended against four-year terms.

Asheville, Cary, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem all have four-year terms for their councils.

“I just don’t think the two-year term affords enough time, especially for new council members coming in, to be able to engage and get to know what’s going on and then have to run again just a few months after that,” Phipps said.

One idea gaining favor in the city: Having staggered four-year terms. The mayor and at-large members would be up for reelection in one two-year cycle, and district council members would be for up for re-election two years after that.

If the City Council members vote for four-year terms, they could make the switch themselves, without approval from Raleigh. Council members could also ask voters to approve the change in a referendum.

But the debate over four-year terms has rekindled an unrelated complaint. Some Republicans say the way City Council seats are comprised unfairly shuts them out.

The GOP said that the council’s four citywide seats are almost always going to be won by Democrats, and those four at-large seats have given Democrats a lopsided 9-2 majority. The other seven seats are from districts and Republicans control two of those seats.

Republicans are 20 percent of the city's registered voters, which is similar to their share of council seats. Democrats are just under 50 percent of registered voters, but have 80 percent of council seats.

Republican City Council member Bokhari said he would be willing to support four-year terms if the city considered term limits or abolishing the at-large seats.

“I’m not so far against (four-year terms) that I wouldn’t be willing to negotiate with some of my colleague to either a) us all being on board and approaching the general assembly about term limits, or b) even considering reducing the number of at-large seats so the demographic of council with Democrats and Republicans better reflected the makeup of our city," Bokhari said.

The Democratic-controlled council is unlikely to reduce the number of at-large seats. But the Republican General Assembly in Raleigh could.

Three years ago, the legislature changed Greensboro’s City Council from having five district seats and three at-large seats to having eight district seats.

Republican state house member Bill Brawley of Matthews said there are no plans to alter Charlotte’s council districts. But it might be a good idea he said.

“I think you could make a good case for having straight district representation," Brawley said. "It’s what we have in the house. It’s what we have in the Senate. And it does allow for a lot more variety of debate.”

At-large council member Julie Eiselt, a Democrat, said the issue of the legislature altering the city's council district is always "hanging over (the city's) head that they can do that."

But she said the city may have to revisit the issue anyway, after the 2020 Census.

"After we look at the 2020 Census, we might need to reduce some of our districts or add a district, so we have to have that conversation," Eiselt said.

Mecklenburg Commissioners asked voters to approve four-year terms in 2015. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the longer terms.

Council members haven't scheduled a vote on longer terms.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.