How Often Should City Council Face the Voters?

Discussion dances around the real issue
Logan Cyrus

The question of whether Charlotte City Council members continue to serve two-year terms or switch to four-year terms is not exactly an issue on which the city’s future rests. Charlotte will continue to raze and build and construct and close streets to accommodate construction. It will continue to function as the ATM capital of the western world, or at least the South, and as BillyGrahamburg. No extension of council members’ terms will alter any of that.

Yet, for such a relatively inconsequential and speculative issue, it’s generating a lot of heat. Former Councilman and Republican mayoral candidate Kenny Smith took to the Observer’s op-ed page in October to practically accuse five council Democrats, who were suggesting longer terms, of plotting a coup—drawing a surprising, if only partial, agreement from former Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat who defeated Smith in 2015. (Roberts didn’t say she opposed the idea itself, just the prospect of council members extending their own terms without a voter referendum.)

One of the council Democrats pushing an exploration of four-year terms, Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, fired back with her own op-ed. Council members have a hard time grasping the increasingly complex issues they have to face, she wrote, when they spend eight months of a two-year term campaigning for re-election. “We are a city of changing demographics, growing at breakneck speed. We have big challenges before us and ahead of us,” Eiselt wrote. “We need the continuity of elected officials who understand and can execute the best policy decisions to handle these challenges.” Eiselt issued her own stinging clapback at Smith and the GOP: “To suggest this was a backroom deal is political nonsense. Perhaps Kenny Smith is accustomed to the way his party operates in the N.C. General Assembly.” Yee-owch!

The council began to talk about it again Monday night. Mayor Vi Lyles wisely pressed “pause,” suggesting it might be a good thing to talk about at the annual retreat next month. Council members decided to push the matter to their next strategy session. Cooler heads, all that. Christmas is coming.

But for all the back-and-forth, the council and assorted commentators have been dancing around the central point behind the issue, which the argument on term length only glances at. It’s really a question that Charlotte city leaders have intermittently wrestled with for a few years now: Does its system of government still work as designed?

On a fundamental level, it obviously does. City officials are fond of explaining the benefits of the council-manager form of government, in which the mayor is essentially a figurehead, council members make policy decisions, and a professional manager and staff run the day-to-day business of the city. The main benefit of having non-elected officials work the levers of city government is that it greatly reduces opportunities for corruption, which turned out to be a huge boon when ex-Mayor Patrick Cannon was caught soliciting bribes from undercover FBI agents in 2014. Another benefit is experience—longtime staffers have already sped past the learning curve that Eiselt and others cite as a potential reason to extend council members’ terms. The minutiae of zoning designations and interdepartmental relations are a lot for new members to absorb, especially when they have to start campaigning for re-election again almost as soon as they take office.

But as skilled as City Manager Marcus Jones and his department heads may be, they’re not elected and therefore not directly answerable to the public—a gripe that’s surfaced in Charlotte especially since the Keith Lamont Scott shooting in 2016. (When Braxton Winston took the lectern as a member of the public during the first council meeting after the shooting, he called for the city manager to be an elected position—meaning, in effect, a switch to a strong-mayor city government. Winston, now a council member, wants to explore longer terms.) It seems that this is what’s really at the core of the council terms issue—not so much whether members serve for two or four or six years but whether they, and the city administrators who are supposed to act at their direction, actually make public service their main priority while they hold office.

During an episode of Charlotte Talks last week, Eiselt and fellow council member Ed Driggs tiptoed around this point for a half-hour or so until they finally jumped on it in the show’s final minutes. “Some people would say the staff runs the city, and that’s the problem: ‘We elect you guys to make policy decisions for us,’” Eiselt said. She paused. “That’s sort of a minefield, I think.”

The council’s two Republicans, Driggs and Tariq Bokhari, oppose the longer terms. Bokhari told me this week that he bases his opposition not on the idea itself but on what he sees as a misguided notion of the actual problem. “If somebody really wants to improve the way this government works,” Bokhari said, he or she needs to work toward knocking down walls that separate city departments.

He’s referring to an explicitly corporate model of government Charlotte adopted in 1994. In short, city departments began operating less as city departments and more as semi-autonomous branches of a “corporation,” working within their spheres and trying, in corporate terms, to maximize efficiencies in service delivery. (The city officially refers to its departments as “key business units.”) But a generation’s gone by, and city officials have begun to realize the disadvantages of the corporate model: “siloed” city departments and and a government that’s at times focused more on internal operations than serving the public. This was one of former City Manager Ron Carlee’s chief complaints about Charlotte city government; Carlee unfortunately didn’t stick around long enough to reconfigure the way the city operates.

This rookie-heavy council, though, has shown an interest in examining the subject with fresh eyes, even if it means going against type. It’s odd that Bokhari, a Republican raised to revere Ronald Reagan, is arguing that Charlotte’s government in some ways operates too much like a business, but there we are. “Right now, everybody operates in verticals. What they need to do is create a horizontal model,” he told me. “It’s the customer we’re ultimately trying to serve.”

I’d substitute “taxpayer” or “citizen” for “customer” there, but point taken. (Bokhari is a Republican, after all.) What’s needed isn’t necessarily a switch in structure but substance, a city government that does a better job of listening and responding to its citizens, and not just on certain Tuesdays in the Novembers of odd-numbered years.

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