January 17, 2013The High Point City Council may seek longer terms and the addition of a nonpartisan primary for municipal elections in the coming year.
Councilmembers also discussed their priorities in general and expressed an interest in improving the communication between the city and residents at a Thursday, Jan. 10 Committee of the Whole briefing in the city manager's conference room at city hall.
High Point City Manager Strib Boynton said there are several ways the current election system – in which members of the City Council are elected in even numbered years without a primary for two-year terms – could be changed.
The council could implement four-year staggered terms.
However, according to Boynton, adding a primary or runoff election could pose practical problems because High Point holds its elections in even numbered years.
In a memo Boynton wrote, "Because our election is now in even numbered years, the combination of an October HP [High Point] vote and the general county, state, and federal elections in November makes it virtually impossible for the board of elections to mail absentee ballots 40-45 days in advance of both elections."
Changing to odd numbered year elections would require an act of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Since state and national elections are held in even numbered years, voter turnout is much higher than in odd year elections when only local candidates are on the ballot.
When discussing what impact changing the election procedure might have on voter turnout, Councilmember Jason Ewing asked, "Do we want more voters voting or do we want more educated voters voting?"
Councilmember Jay Wagner said, "I'm not even sure you can define what an educated voter is."
Councilmember Douglas Foster pointed out that it had been one of the council's goals to increase voter turnout.
Ewing said that he thought turnout could be increased by reaching out to citizens and informing them about the issues.
Councilmember Becky Smothers said, "People who want to find out who to vote for find a way to do it."
The councilmembers seemed to favor switching to staggered four-year terms to give new councilmembers time to learn the ropes and to ensure some experienced councilmembers would remain after each election.
Mayor Bernita Sims said, "I feel the two years we currently do is unfair to councilmembers." United States congressmen, North Carolina state senators and state representatives are all elected to two-year terms.
Smothers said a three-year term would be ideal. "It takes you a year to figure out how to get in the building," she said.
Smothers said that in a two-year term councilmembers only get a year-and-a-half before they have to go into campaign mode. "That detracts from the quality of governance, because it's all about campaigning," she said.
Smothers said she had no problem with moving to four-year terms.
Councilmembers also talked briefly about making more seats at large. Smothers said, "Quite frankly, I think the best government is everyone is elected at large."
Councilmember Judy Mendenhall said the council had considered that before but not gone through with it. "We felt that you needed to be responsible to a total community, not a small group," she said. Mendenhall also said partisan politics had no place at the local level.
Another item that was discussed was renaming a street for Martin Luther King Jr..
Sims said, "All of the communities that surround us have streets that are named after Dr. King."
She said the street she has in mind to rename is Kivett Drive, but said if it were up to her Main Street would be renamed.
"I don't understand why we are discussing this in 2013," said Sims.
Smothers pointed out that businesses and residents along the street would have to cover expenses for changing their addresses, which could lead to some pushback.
Smothers said she would support renaming Kivett, from Business 85 to Centennial.
Councilmembers were asked to give a list of suggested streets for the name change to staff for analysis.
Councilmembers also discussed what the top priorities of the council should be. Improving communication with the public and developing long range plans were among the main themes.
Councilmember Britt Moore said he felt the council needs to move forward with Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which is an overhaul of High Point zoning regulations.
Smothers asked if Moore wanted to accelerate the process, and Moore responded that it would depend on what the consultants said.
"I know there was an attempt by some to say 'hey, adopt Greensboro's and move on with it.' I think we as a council need to stay informed and as educated as we can in the process," Moore said.
Wagner said he wanted a long-term view of where they want to be as a city 25 years from now. "We tend to do things sort of piecemeal," he said.
Several other councilmember mentioned having a 25-year plan, to which Smothers responded, "I think we've already got one. I just think y'all don't know what it is yet."
Smothers said, "There has been a growth policy. I'm not sure that the council even is aware of what those investments have been."
Wagner said he thought the city could do a better job telling its "story" and articulating it to the people.
Mendenhall agreed that the city did not communicate effectively. She said a resident had complained to her that the city was repairing sidewalks when some streets weren't paved.
"People don't understand. They see you doing something and that may be the only way those dollars can be spent, but they don't know that," Mendenhall said.
The council discussed looking into text messages as a way to make information about the city more accessible.