It’s time for some bold ideas for local government

The expected delay in this year's local elections presents an opportunity to rethink the relationship between city and county government.

Jennifer Watson Roberts is a former Charlotte mayor and former member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Read more of her opinion articles here.

The 2020 Census figures will not be ready until late September, too late for the General Assembly to re-draw district voting lines in time for this fall’s local elections. That means the 2021 elections for the Charlotte City Council and the district members of the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board will likely be pushed to 2022.

This provides a perfect opportunity for some big, bold ideas. Admittedly, these ideas face a complex system that is burdened with inertia, so they are unlikely to happen. Still, let’s take a minute to dream together.

Right now, city council and half of the school board is on the ballot in the odd-numbered years, and everyone else is on the ballot in the even-numbered years. This results in elections being held every year in Charlotte. But what if we moved the city elections permanently to the even-numbered years?

Here are some good things that would happen:

Voters may be less exhausted. Having to vote every year seems to be too much for most busy people, who trying to raise their families and do well at their jobs. This shows in the abysmal turnout in the odd-year elections. The primary election turnout for Mayor and City Council usually hovers between 7% and 9%, and the general election turnout has been around 20%. If we had elections every two years, that fatigue would lessen, and turnout would rise. When turnout is higher, voting comes closer to reflecting the true will of the people, and more people will feel engaged in their future. It strengthens our democracy and leads to better and more equitable policies.

There is also a lot to be said for collaboration. Everyone knows that it is harder to get things done during an election year. Well, as our city makes up about 75% of the county, it would be great to have the city and the county collaborate on planning and policy and housing, and so much else. There is a great deal of overlap in issues and responsibilities, and too often the coordination is less than optimal. This is exacerbated by the fact that every year, one or the other set of elected officials is working on their campaigns, making it harder to collaborate. If they ran during the same year, there would be an off year for both elected bodies, giving them time for joint meetings and more time for planning and coordination.

Now here is the really bold idea.  This census delay also would be a great time to finally consolidate city and county government, an effort that has been tried twice before but failed. A consolidation would save money (only one manager, etc.) and it would allow for better coordination and accountability.  For example, the police (who do the arresting) and the Sheriff’s office (that does the booking and jailing) would have the same boss for a change. There could be better analysis of data, and less tendency to arrest someone with the idea that then “they become someone else’s problem.” The County, that runs mental health and drug treatment programs, might collaborate better with the police when they are all under the same budget umbrella. This is not to say that these two bodies are at odds with each other now. They work very hard to share data and to coordinate.  But sometimes the mere institutional structure of two different budgets, two different bosses, different budget cycles, and different elected official transitions makes it hard. It is not the fault of the employees, it is the result of the system. A change in election cycles would give us a rare opportunity to contemplate systemic change.

The other two entities that would be more in sync are the County and the School Board. Their elected officials would run in the same year, again providing an opportunity for the same off-year to share more plans and ideas.

Now, the nay-sayers will complain that this would make the even years’ ballots too long.  Well, we just had a presidential election year, with a Senate seat and Congress, a Governor’s race and Council of State, and many state and local officials on it, and I did not hear a single person complain about a long ballot. There was a lot else to complain about – but not the length of the ballot. And adding two more offices – City Council and School Board – is not adding that much. Each voter would add to their ballot two district reps to choose (city and schools), four at-large council members and a mayoral choice.  That is not a lot to add to a ballot.  For other cities in the state that have smaller city councils and school boards, it would be even less.

Election officials should make this change permanent. The boost that this would give to voter turn-out, engagement and education, and even to collaboration among elected bodies, would be worth it. And we should seize the opportunity to finally make the merger of Mecklenburg County and City of Charlotte Governments happen – with a great deal of autonomy still given to the 6 towns within the county, so they can retain their unique small town characters and control. It is doable, and other metro areas around the country have done it with success – places like Denver, Louisville, and Philadelphia. The sticking point might lie with the elected officials, but if the new council had 21 members, no one would necessarily lose their position. With an elected body that works on both public health and workforce issues, both social services and housing infrastructure, and both public safety and mental health, officials could truly connect the dots in the intersectionality of issues, and cause and effect. I predict that then we would see some real breakthroughs in improving that elusive access to opportunity, where our Charlotte community has been failing.

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1 Comment

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  1. The statement “other metro areas around the country have done it with success – places like Denver…” is false and misleading. Denver has *always* had a city and county government – there was never a merger process. It is one thing to be “born” in the 19th century as a consolidated city-county, and quite another to go through the political process of merging separate, “matured” city and county governments in the 21st century. Louisville has done this, but not Denver or Philadelphia.

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