braxton winston
New City Council member Braxton Winston said the city should consider four-year terms for council members instead of having two-year terms. New City Council member Braxton Winston said the city should consider four-year terms for council members instead of having two-year terms. (Credit: Joshua Komer, The Charlotte Observer)

By Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer

Several Charlotte City Council members want to either increase their pay or switch to four-year terms instead of running for re-election every two years, despite recent skepticism from voters about longer terms. Council members say the changes would help them better serve residents.

Both ideas have been discussed informally for several years, but new at-large council member Braxton Winston brought the issue up during his first regular meeting Monday.

“Look, I know Mayberry is set in North Carolina, but Charlotte is no Mayberry,” he said. “The people in Charlotte should have a full-time government.”

Related: Will Charlotte City Council resume televising the public comment portion of its meetings?

Winston, a Democrat, said council members are essentially serving people for only the first year of their two-year term because “every two years you have to run for office.”

Winston said he would like to see staggered four-year terms. Council members who represent districts would be on the ballot, say, in 2018 and 2022. Council members elected citywide would be on the ballot in 2020 and 2024. The mayor could also be on the ballot with at-large council members.

“The people deserve it, businesses deserves it, (city) staff deserves it,” Winston said. “I hope we are willing to have a politically difficult conversation.”

Democrat LaWana Mayfield, who represents District 3, has floated the idea of four-year terms periodically since she was elected in 2011.

Council members can set their own pay and change the length of their terms on their own, without General Assembly or voter approval. Mayfield said she hopes her colleagues explore the idea.

“We have the political ability,” she said. “Do we have the political will?”

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Council members make $19,809 in salary, plus a general expense allowance of $5,800, a $4,000 auto allowance and a $3,100 technology allowance each year. Their total pay is $32,709.

The mayor’s salary is $25,636. The mayor also has expense allowances, though they are higher. The mayor’s total pay is $43,536, including salary.

Both council member positions and the mayor are technically part-time positions. They hire a city manager who runs the city, and the elected officials are there to provide guidance and an overall vision for the city.

Related: Councilmember Braxton Winston livestreams the public forum from dais

But many say they spend far more than 40 hours a week as council members. When residents have a problem, they usually call their council member – not a staff member who is officially in charge of fixing a pothole or a broken street light.

Democratic at-large member Julie Eiselt, who also supports changing the length of terms and possibly compensation, said she estimates she was paid about $6 an hour during her last term.

Mayfield said paying council members more would expand the pool of candidates. Historically, many elected officials are often retired or near retirement and financially secure. Mayfield said a total compensation of between $50,000 and $60,000 would attract more candidates.

Eiselt said Charlotte is the only similarly sized city with a weak-mayor form of government with two-year terms. When compared with 20 peer cities, Eiselt said only two other cities have two-year terms – Boston and Raleigh. She said that in Boston, elected officials are full-time and make $99,000 a year.

The state legislature allows the city to set the pay for their elected officials, and the General Assembly also allows cities or towns to have either two- or four-year terms. The terms can be staggered, as Winston and Mayfield have suggested.

The City Council could put the issue on a ballot and let voters decide – or it could be voted on by themselves as a regular agenda item.

Related: Charlotte restaurateur responds to Councilmember Mayfield boycotting his restaurant by calling homosexuality a sin

“They can do that on their own, and they can set their own pay,” said city attorney Bob Hagemann.

Republican council member Ed Driggs said he’s open to increasing the pay for elected officials.

“When you look at how much time that’s being invested (in the job), you are narrowing the base of people who can run,” he said. “It gets down to whether you think (council pay) should be the principal income source of the council member. If you translate it to an hourly wage, you won’t attract the kind of talent we want unless you find very civic-minded people.”

But Driggs said he believes two-year terms “work just fine.”

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“For most of us if we are doing our jobs well, the process of being re-elected is not that tough,” he said.

In 2010, council members appointed a citizens advisory panel led by former mayors Richard Vinroot and Harvey Gantt to study the length of terms. That panel voted 6-4 in favor of keeping two-year terms.

Two years ago, Mecklenburg commissioners voted 7-2 in favor of asking voters to approve four-year terms for their nine-member board. In the November 2015 election, 66 percent of voters rejected that idea. Voters had also shot down four-year terms for commissioners in 1985 and 1992.

But a year later, in June 2016, commissioners voted 6-2 to increase their take-home pay from $30,252 to $43,371.

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