City vote designed to be dull

Staff WriterSeptember 27, 2009 

If last year's election was like watching the Super Bowl, this year's election is like watching bowling.

Last year, it was Barack Obama versus John McCain. This year, it's Charles Meeker versus Mark Enloe, Larry Hudson and Gregg Kunz.

Meekermania? I don't think so.

North Carolina's municipal and school board elections were largely designed to be dull and nonpartisan. When you hold an Oct. 6 primary and Nov. 3 general election in an off year, you can expect a low turnout.

Raleigh's system was set up after World War II by idealistic types -- Jaycees, Kiwanians, Chamber of Commerce executives -- who wanted to clean up city hall.

"We thought we ought to have a business form of government," the late Bill Lassiter, a Raleigh lawyer involved in the effort, once told me. "The council members would be like civic leaders."

Starting in the 1940s, Raleigh had a city council elected at-large (board of directors), which then elected a mayor from its own ranks (chairman of the board) and hired a city manager (CEO).

In the 1970s, with the city beginning its growth spurt, Raleigh changed to district elections and the direct election by voters of a mayor.

By the 1990s, the political parties began becoming involved in helping their candidates, even if the ballot carried no party identification.

That is where things stand. If you came from Atlanta, Philadelphia or Los Angeles, you might be surprised at how little attention is paid to the mayor's race, or how little muscle the mayor has.

The pattern holds true for most of North Carolina. Only a few places, such as Charlotte and Winston- Salem, have partisan municipal elections.

School board races tend to revolve around issues such as school assignment rather than political parties.

There are pros and cons to the way North Carolina does things. Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill, Apex, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point are among the relatively few cities and towns cross the country to earn the highest AAA bond credit rating, which is one way to measure good government.

But voter turnout drops dramatically when municipal and school board elections are decoupled from national and state elections. Without listing political affiliations for candidates, voters have few cues when making choices.

So we are left with local races that are about as exciting as, well, watching bowling.

rob.christensen@newsobserver .com or 919-829-4532

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