Coming to terms: Council seeks input from city residents on changing charter

Published 9:49 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Before the Washington City Council decides whether to have the mayor and its members serve four-year staggered terms, it wants city residents to express their views on the proposed change.

City residents will get that opportunity at the council’s Feb. 23 meeting. The comment segment begins at 6 p.m.

Currently, the mayor and council members serve concurrent two-year terms, which means it’s possible for the mayor and entire council to voted out of office in one election. During the council’s meeting Monday night, City Attorney Franz Holscher explained the options the city has when it comes to changing the terms. Holscher said not matter which option is chosen, the city’s charter would have to be changed at least 90 days before the next election, which is set for Nov. 3.

Holscher told the council the city’s charter could be changed by having the city’s representatives in the N.C. General Assembly introduce a local bill that would allow the four-year staggered terms. Such a bill is usually introduced during the Legislature’s short session, which would be conducted next year. Holscher also said such a bill usually must have unanimous support of local elected officials and be noncontroversial in nature.

Holscher also said the charter could be changed under the state’s charter-change statute, which allows four-year staggered terms.

A council that wishes to propose and adopt a charter amendment under the charter change statute must follow six discrete steps, which are set out in state law:

• Adopt a resolution of intent. The first step is to adopt a resolution of intent, describing the change or changes proposed by council.

• Call a public hearing. At the same time it adopts the resolution of intent, the council must call a public hearing, which must be held within 45 days after adoption of the resolution of intent.

• Adopt the ordinance. After the hearing, but no earlier than the council’s next regular meeting, the council may adopt an ordinance amending the charter.

• Hold the public hearing. At the appointed time, the council must hold the public hearing.

• Adopt the ordinance. After the hearing, but no earlier than the council’s next regular meeting, the council may adopt an ordinance amending the charter.

• Publish notice of the ordinance. Within 10 days after the ordinance is adopted, the city must publish notice of that fact, summarizing the contents and effect of the ordinance.

Holscher explained further.

“The action the council could take after that public hearing would be one of two forms: one, you could adopt the ordinance, which would change your charter without submitting that to a special vote of the people or you could adopt the ordinance and make it subject to a vote of the people. There are rules about how that could occur. It could occur through a special election and I believe it also could occur at the next general election,” Holscher said.

“If council adopted the ordinance but did not make it subject to a vote of the people, it would still be subject to a referendum petition. The state statute says that if 10 percent of your registered city voters were to execute and file a referendum petition with the city clerk within, I believe, 30 days of notice of the adoption, then you would have to have a referendum and that could be done by a special election, and I also believe it could be done at the next general election,” Holscher said.

Holscher told the council that changing from concurrent two-year terms to staggered four-year terms by using the charter-change option could be accomplished in less than two months.

Holscher said 395 of North Carolina’s 553 cities have some form of four-year terms, according to the University of North Carolina’s School of Government. Holscher provided several options to setting up the staggered four-year terms.

“I’m ready to move forward on the resolution at the next meeting and open it up for discussion,” Councilman Bobby Roberson said.

Councilman Richard Brooks concurred.

Councilman Doug Mercer, who has reservations about changing the terms, said, “I would prefer we have a meeting, an open meeting, where people can come and say ‘Yea’ or ‘Nay’ and then we progress down the road, but if we have 200 people stand up here and say ‘No,’ why spend the time and the effort to (make the change)?”

Council member William Pitt supported Mercer’s suggestion.

“That’s a very large step. I think the public needs to be advised and the public needs to understand the ramifications of it,” he said.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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