by Bob Geary
One follow-up to the Raleigh City Council retreat story from earlier in the week:
In addition to their wanting some staff help and to push a bolder agenda of economic development tied to strategic transit and other infrastructure investments (click on the story if you missed all that), Council members were considering a change from two-year terms to four-year terms.
Introduced by Councilor John Odom in February, the proposal is — was? — to have all eight council members, including the mayor, elected at the same time every four years instead of every two years as has been done since 1947. (There would be no stagger in the terms. All eight would be on the same ballot.)
The subject of terms wasn't discussed at the retreat. But it was discussed, and a public hearing was conducted on Odom's proposal, at the Council's Tuesday evening public session. (You can watch it on RTN right here — scroll down to City Council, click, click on video for the Aug. 7 evening session, then jump to the last item on the agenda. Soup to nuts, it's a most interesting 10 minutes.)
I say public hearing, because that's what it was officially. Unofficially, the fact that only three people came forward to speak in favor of the change (with a fourth speaking against it) amounted to a great big yawn — i.e., the public is not in favor. And the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which is in favor, either didn't lift a finger turning out a crowd, or else it couldn't muster one.
The hearing itself lasted about three minutes. When it ended, Mayor Nancy McFarlane was ready to get the question off the table by assigning it to a standing council committee, but that's when things got interesting. McFarlane was challenged (and not for the first time) by Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who made a motion, seconded by Odom, to instead create a special, 12-member citizens committee to study four-year terms.
That would, of course, keep the issue alive and give its proponents another chance to build a fire under it.
"I think we deserve, and our citizens deserve, a right to explore this and not just set it aside," Baldwin said. The last three words were said with negative emphasis.
"I don't think anybody's setting it aside," McFarlane shot back. She said the council had taken the issue seriously, adding: "That's why we had a public hearing."
Now, the merits of two-year terms vs. four-year are easily summarized, I think. Two-year terms keep the council members close to their constituents, as Councilor Thomas Crowder argued. (And the system's worked pretty well, so don't "fix" it, Crowder added.) On the other hand, if you want bold action, Baldwin said, a lot of the cities Raleigh's looked at as models — cities visited on the annual Chamber of Commerce trips — not only have four-year terms, but attribute their success to the added insulation from voter disapproval that their four-year terms provide.
What made the 10 minutes interesting, though, wasn't the merits of the argument. It was the politics.
Do you remember how Baldwin went after McFarlane, back in December, over the new mayor's very first official action, which was to name Councilor Russ Stephenson to the largely ceremonial post of mayor pro tem? Baldwin out of nowhere said Councilor Eugene Weeks should get the nod, which led to Stephenson offering to share the job with Weeks — one year each.
Jump forward to Tuesday night. Baldwin wants a special 12-member citizens committee created to keep the idea of four-year terms alive. McFarlane, who supports two-year terms, wants the issue referred to the Comprehensive Plan Committee, meaning that the council itself would control the discussion and be in a position to end it.
Now, sentiment on the Council seems to be in favor of two-year terms. I count McFarlane, Crowder, Stephenson and Bonner Gaylord as in that corner, with Randy Stagner on the fence. Not sure about Weeks. Baldwin and Odom are the only two pushing the idea.
Still, when it came time to vote on Baldwin's motion for a special committee, it looked like it might prevail.
Baldwin had Odom. Gaylord, who said he sees no need to change from two-year terms, nonetheless was fine with a citizens committee. Then Stagner, normally a McFarlane ally, also said there was no harm in a special committee, and he'd be interested in what it might find out about four-year terms and term limits too.
Add Weeks, and that would be five in favor — a majority.
Except that, to Baldwin's obvious surprise — she twice asked for the vote to be confirmed — Weeks voted with McFarlane, and against Baldwin.
Which meant that Baldwin's motion failed on a 4-3 vote, one short of the required five. (Stephenson, a McFarlane ally and a likely no vote if he'd been there, was excused due to illness.)
For the record, Weeks and Baldwin are Democrats, as are Crowder and Stephenson. McFarlane, Stagner and Gaylord are independents — registered unaffiliated. Odom's a Republican. But in city politics, party affiliation doesn't explain a whole lot.