Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh weighs switch to four-year council terms

Mayor Nancy McFarlane spoke out against a proposed switch to four-year council terms, saying the current two-year format keeps “career politicians” out of City Hall and gives voters more influence in the city’s direction.

With McFarlane and at least two council members firmly opposed, the prospects for a switch appear to be fading. The City Council voted 5-3 to schedule a public hearing this fall, if only to keep the discussion going for a while longer.

“I’ve thought about this for a long time,” McFarlane said last week. “Obviously it’s a pain to run every two years. (But) I look around at a lot of the elected bodies, and we’re probably one of the better-functioning ones.”

The chief advocate for a switch, Councilman John Odom, says two years leaves too little time between campaign seasons. Elected officials have to raise money and plot strategy when they ought to be governing the city, Odom says.

Four-year terms would put Raleigh in line with the Wake school board and county commission, and towns such as Cary and Holly Springs. In Durham, city council members serve four-year terms, but a mayor is elected every two years.

The current format guarantees accountability, Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder said.

“Campaigning is an intense activity that is draining and all-consuming,” Stephenson said. “On the other hand, it’s actually one of the most productive times in finding out exactly how people feel about your performance, and what they’re concerned about.”

City employees get job reviews every year, Crowder said. “This is the citizens’ way of giving a review to their councilors.”

Statewide, public opinion appears evenly split on the issue. When legislators considered switching to four-year terms in 2009, a poll found 55 percent of voters supported the change as a way to reduce the amount of time legislators spend campaigning and raising money. Commissioned by the N.C. Center for Voter Education, the poll of 818 N.C. voters was conducted by Public Policy Polling.

The city charter would have to be changed, said City Attorney Tom McCormick. Revisions normally require the General Assembly to pass a local bill. However, state law empowers cities to set the lengths of council terms.

The new terms could not begin until the 2013 city election.

Councilman Bonner Gaylord drew chuckles from colleagues when he said that his preference depends on the makeup of a particular council.

“I would love for this group to stay on for four years,” he said. With others, “I’d be happy if we ran every year.”