Charlotte City Council made a few meaningful decisions during Monday night’s meeting, but perhaps none as big as the discussion that brought out about a dozen speakers both virtually and in-person: whether to hold municipal elections in 2021.
We reported in February why this year’s election may need to be delayed, but since then, the North Carolina General Assembly decided to allow towns and cities to choose for themselves whether their residents would vote for at-large and/or mayoral candidates in November (district reps would still need to wait for redistricting, regardless of Monday’s vote).
Council was tasked with deciding whether to push all elections back to 2022, as has been discussed since February, or hold an election solely for at-large and mayoral candidates. Not many council members attended on Monday — Julie Eiselt, Dimple Ajmera, Victoria Watlington and Larken Egleston were absent — and only the two Republicans supported holding elections this year, so they will be pushed back to 2022.
Moving forward, Charlotte City Council will hold its primary elections on March 8, 2022, and the general election on April 26, 2022. As for upcoming meetings, council will hold a zoning meeting on July 19, but otherwise won’t be back until Aug. 9, when the city’s new nondiscrimination ordinance will be on the agenda.
Here are some sights and sounds from Monday night’s meeting, in case you’re looking for a play-by-play.
Transformational Mobility Network
City manager Marcus Jones and others presented on the Transformational Mobility Network, stating that projected costs for the network have gone up, confirming recent reporting by David Hodges with WBTV. Jones said the original estimates of $8-$12 billion were built on the assumption that all of the projects involved in the plan could start simultaneously, which will not be the case.
Discussing the potential 1-cent sales tax increase, which will be voted on by Charlotte taxpayers as a way to fund the TMN, Jones said the original estimate of $6.6 billion increase in revenue didn’t take population growth into account, so researchers are now estimating $13.5 billion over 30 years.
However, if passed, the tax won’t go into effect until 2023. The entire plan’s timeline has changed since it was originally presented by the Charlotte Moves Task Force. The scheduled opening dates would be as follows:
- 2031- Red Line
- 2033- Gold Line Phase 3
- 2037- Silver Line Phase A
- 2040- Silver Line Phase B
- 2041- Blue Line (to Ballantyne)
Janet LaBar, president and CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, spoke briefly and championed the TMN, calling it the largest economic development project in the state’s history.
Carolyn Flowers with InfraStrategies LLC then addressed council, discussing the city’s grant process and new estimates for costs. The city will seek capital investment grants from the federal government, and if approved, would provide the required matching funds with what comes from the sales tax increase. She emphasized that financial estimates will continue to change as the details behind this plan continue to crystallize.
Updated cost estimates, according to InfraStrategies’ “baseline model,” equal more than $11 billion, and that’s only for the transit projects. Total estimate with non-transit costs is $13.5 billion, which still does not include operational costs. The city could be paying off debt in connection to the TFM as far out as 2070, 29 years after the projected completion of the final planned project in 2041.
Tariq Bokhari claimed the TFM is another example of the city manager’s office using council as a rubber stamp, and claimed the plan as it stands is dead on arrival because the council has ruined its trust with partnering governments. “The General Assembly and the towns will not have the trust necessary as long as we keep treating our partners like pawns.”
Monday’s first speaker was Cameron Pruette, who emphasized that flawed Census data did not include trans people. “We can’t even track people accurately because the Census was politicized by the Trump administration.” He asked council to push all elections to 2022 so as to increase turnout and allow for better data.
Longtime N.C. activist and one-time congressional candidate Harry Taylor, representing the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, approached the podium and pulled a large puppet out of a bag. He named the puppet Gerry Mander, saying he an adversary of democracy.
Taylor said for more than a century, at-large districts have been used for racial and partisan gerrymandering, then told the story of how neighborhood groups finally lobbied for a return to districts for Charlotte City Council in 1977.
Taylor and others with the local LWV called on council to carry out the upcoming redistricting process in a fair, transparent way that encourages community input.
Rev. Corine Mack with the local NAACP spoke against the idea of holding separate, or bifurcated, elections for at-large/mayoral candidates and district reps. She said democracy has already been threatened on a federal level, and now this issue threatens it locally.
Local conservative attorney Lawrence Shaheen spoke next, discussing his family’s origin story as Americans, Lebanese immigrants fleeing an oppressive Turkish regime in the early 1900s. He quoted William Gladstone in stating, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” and made clear that he would like to see mayoral and at-large elections held this year.
Shaheen said he didn’t understand how holding regularly scheduled elections could be viewed as disenfranchisement, then ended by quoting MLK Jr.: “Give us the vote.”
The next speaker was Cindy Decker, who said city reps try to shine light on Charlotte when we’re not ready for such attention, as when city leaders called the city racist because it fit the national narrative.
“As a voter I want to respond to that in November, not six months from now,” Decker said, though she probably meant six months after November, not six months from now, because that would just be December.
The chair of the Mecklenburg Republican Party spoke in favor of holding elections this year, saying that holding regularly scheduled elections is the opposite of voter suppression.
She was followed by her counterpart Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, who pointed out that bifurcated elections would allow a district rep to run for at-large seats or mayor while keeping their seat, then simply sign up for re-election in their district if they lost the former.
Lisa Ellsworth with Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County spoke virtually, saying she hadn’t heard a good enough reason that would justify spending $850,000 to hold two separate elections. She said allegations that council members want to extend their terms are unsubstantiated, as district reps will already see their terms extended regardless.
Longtime resident Arthur Griffin said, “There are probably a dozen reasons” not to bifurcate elections, but he’ll name two, then pointed to already-low turnout for municipal elections, adding that bifurcating elections will make that lower. He also said small groups can manipulate results in low-turnout elections.
Stephanie Snead with the Black Political Caucus said holding two separate elections would suppress the Black vote, as there would be less early voting and opportunities for voting education/engagement.
Former council member LaWana Mayfield spoke in support of moving forward with the election in whatever way possible. “The 2021 elections should not be negated due to a previous presidential administration’s incompetence.”
Moving to council for comment, Matt Newton began: “The issue today is not whether or not goal posts will be changed, the issue is that goal posts have already been changed.” He asked how it would make sense to hold two elections, especially when council has discussed pushing it back for months and now they would be scrambling. He said he would support holding a unified election next year rather than separate them over that time.
Renee Johnson then spoke in support of delaying elections as well. There had been some speculation that some Comp Plan opponents — district reps like Newton and Johnson who wouldn’t have to face an election this year regardless — would support holding a separate election for the mayoral/at-large race, but after they both spoke in support of a delay, it became clear that’s what would happen.
Tariq Bokhari then said he doesn’t buy any of the excuses he’s hearing from folks who support a delay — that no one will be confused by holding an election on schedule, and that no one who’s claiming to care about the increased cost to taxpayers truly cares about financial conservatism.
Bokhari kept speaking into what was supposed to be Malcolm Graham’s turn to talk. He then shrugged off any claims that he was being disrespectful, claiming that Graham had been making faces at him whenever he spoke over the past month. This breach in decorum caused Mayor Vi Lyles to throw the meeting into a five-minute recess.
Upon returning from the break, Graham got his turn to talk, starting by saying he had never in his 20-year career called out someone else on council or the state senate, and he wouldn’t start on Monday. Then he responded to some of the “intellectually dishonest” points made by Bokhari regarding the Comp Plan and the raises for the mayor and council that had been included in the recently passed budget.
He then turned to Bokhari’s comments that Democrats on council had “punted” on the issue of homelessness, saying he had been working on that issue behind the scenes since October. “What I haven’t done is say we should go arrest people, that’s intellectually dishonest,” he said, referencing Bokhari’s recent suggestions that the city make it a misdemeanor to give aid directly to homeless people.
The motion to hold a bifurcated election failed, ensuring that the municipal elections will be delayed to 2022.
Earlier in the meeting, Braxton Winston had asked that an item be removed from the consent agenda: the $996,000 purchase of Glock handguns for CMPD to replace their currently issued Smith & Wesson handguns. The item was then voted on separately without discussion, and approved, with Winston the only No vote.
Winston also motioned for deferral of the vote on changes to the city’s virtual meeting policy, such as what allows for a council member to attend virtually and whether members of the public can continue to address council virtually, so staff can look into best practices in other cities. Whatever changes are made won’t go into effect until the state of emergency is lifted in North Carolina, so the vote was not urgent, and council deferred.
Council then voted unanimously to approve details of the new Arts & Culture Advisory Board, which will make choices around how local arts funding is spent by the city. The board will work with a newly appointed Arts and Culture Officer to develop a comprehensive Arts and Culture Plan, allocate remaining funds of $4.4 million to support arts, culture, and artists in Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, and allocate $12 million each in FY 2023 and FY 2024.
The Arts and Culture Advisory Board will be comprised of 18 individuals, including nine private sector appointments (one appointment will be an Arts and Science Council Appointee) and nine public sector appointments (three Mayor appointments and six city council appointments. The members will serve one three-year term. The future of the Arts and Culture Advisory Board will be determined through the Arts and Culture Plan.
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