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Charlotte Council To Decide Whether To Extend Terms Of Mayor, At-Large Members — Or Hold Some Elections On Time

Erin Keever
The Charlotte City Council is considering whether to extend the terms of the mayor and four at-large council members by six months.

Charlotte City Council will soon have to decide whether to extend the terms of the mayor and four at-large council members — or hold those elections on time, in the fall of 2021. WFAE's "Morning Edition" co-host Marshall Terry spoke with WFAE’s political reporter Steve Harrison about the upcoming elections for Charlotte mayor and City Council and what might happen.

Terry: Steve, now, as I understand it, this all goes back to delays with the release of census data that the city needs to draw new districts. So what’s going on with the mayoral races and at the at-large seats?

Harrison: So yes, the General Assembly has passed a bill that will push back municipal elections where there are districts into spring. Like you said, the cities and towns don’t have census data to draw new districts that are supposed to be more or less equal in population. And so holding those elections on time would most likely be unconstitutional.

So there are seven district Charlotte City Council races that are almost certainly going to be pushed to next year.

But — and this is a big but — the bill allows for Charlotte and other cities to hold their non-district elections on time this fall. That would be the mayor's race and the four at-large council seats that are currently held by Julie Eiselt, Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera and Greg Phipps.

So City Council is expected to decide on Monday or soon after whether to hold the elections for mayor and at-large on time, or to delay them until 2022. And that would mean the mayor and at-large members would extend their terms by six months — even though they don’t have to.

Terry: OK, so we’ve known about these census problems for months. Why are we now debating whether the the mayor and at-large council members should extend their terms?

Harrison: Yeah, this was a late add to the bill. Republican district council member Tariq Bokhari has been acting as the city’s point person in Raleigh, shepherding this process through and asking legislators to help them deal with the census problems.

He says he recently suggested to the Republican leadership that they allow cities and towns to split their elections.

Here’s his reasoning:

(recording) Bokhari: These voters elected us to make some decisions but also to serve for a two-year period. It isn’t up to us to make that decision when it’s not required by any other reason – especially not the census and constitutional legality.

Terry: Now this decision comes right after that 6-5 vote to pass the 2040 comprehensive plan that eliminated single-family zoning. And Bokhari fought that to the end. So is there 2040 plan drama as part of this?

Harrison: Yeah, I think that’s safe to say.

Like you said, Bokhari was really against the 2040 plan. And he thinks that voters should be able to hold the mayor and at-large council members accountable for things like pay raises and the 2040 plan.

And some of the same alliances that we saw during the 2040 plan seem to be back at play over this election decision. Some of the supporters of the 2040 plan — many of whom are at-large council members — think it’s better to have all the elections at the same time.

Here’s at-large council member Julie Eiselt at a council committee meeting last week where she said it would be confusing to have two elections.

(recording) Eiselt: It just seems pretty chaotic to me. I think it’s going to confuse voters. It’s questionable who is going to show up to vote in November versus doing it all at one time in March.

Harrison: Now a few more things on this. There are people on council who think Bokhari did all this so he could have essentially a free chance at running for mayor.

Because in a normal election, if you run for mayor or at-large, you have to give up your seat because you can’t run for two jobs at once. But with a split election you can do that — you could run for another seat while keeping your old one.

Terry: So what about that? Is Bokahri going to challenge Vi Lyles for mayor?

Harrison: He says absolutely not. He says there’s no way he could win, or any Republican can win.

I did ask about whether he would run for an at-large seat. And he says he’s not planning on it, but is less emphatic.

Terry: And what are the arguments in favor of extending the term of mayor and the at-large seats?

Harrison: There are a couple. One is cost. The city would have to spend about $350,000 to hold a second election. Another one is that a lot of people have assumed all the races would be in 2022. And so to go back to having elections this year means a really compressed schedule. Filing would start next month, and the primary would be in September. That’s not a lot of time for challengers to raise money and do any campaigning.

You could argue it’s a big advantage to the incumbents.

Terry: And one more question. Some members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board are also having their terms extended as well, right?

Harrison: That’s right. The bill has a special carve-out for CMS and the Lexington City Board of Education. that pushes their six district elections into November 2022 — a full year late.

And that’s all a bit unclear. CMS said it didn’t ask for its election to be in November 2022 as opposed to March 2022. Mecklenburg State Sen. Natasha Marcus said it made sense to have CMS stick with the November election date, even though it’s a year late.

But there are others who are asking, Why are their terms being extended by a full year instead of six months?

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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.
Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.