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Waxhaw is on its way to becoming Union County’s first dictatorship.

Town leaders tried to quietly slip a resolution on its consent agenda last night that supported asking state lawmakers for help in moving town elections from odd to even years, thus giving the mayor and commissioners an extra year in office.

Mayor Ron Pappas admitted during the meeting that commissioners talked about the resolution in pairs with town staff, a strategy public officials use so they don’t have to discuss details openly in a public forum.

It took Commissioner Pedro Morey to pull the resolution from the consent agenda to discuss the item during last night’s meeting. And his colleagues pretty much talked down to him like he was an idiot, when in fact he was the only commissioner with the courage and morality to act on the public’s behalf.

What Waxhaw commissioners attempted to do last night was change the town charter without the public’s knowledge or consent. No public hearing. No public vote. Just them deciding to extend their terms for one year, because why not?

Engaging the public

One of the things that bugged me about last night’s discussion was that Town Manager Jeff Wells provided the executive summary and presentation. Not a citizen advisory committee, not the mayor or a commissioner, but the guy charged with leading daily operations of the town. Why does he care or even have the time to worry about voter turnout?

Anyway, Wells reasoned that municipal elections could have higher turnout if they were on the ballot with state, federal and other county races. His memo notes it is “potentially cheaper,” too.

He compared voter data from the 2016, 2018 and 2020 general elections to the 2015, 2017 and 2019 municipal elections to prove his point. This is all valid. I’m sure the turnout would be higher if Waxhaw elections were on even years (though some readers may point out concerns of ballot fatigue).

The resolution Waxhaw approved last night was a deal-breaker for me. The resolution calls for state legislators to draft a bill allowing Waxhaw to vote in even years with provisions that the three commissioners elected in 2017 would have their terms extended to 2022 and the mayor and two commissioners elected in 2019 should be extended to 2024.

Wells said this was the beginning of the legislative process. He said Archdale, Black Mountain and Biltmore Forest followed the same process. These are itty bitty towns in North Carolina you’ve may have bought a Slim Jim or slushy in on your way to somewhere fun.

Morey shows morals

Commissioner Pedro Morey acknowledged that he and others on the board have talked about the importance of getting more people involved in elections during the campaign, but he couldn’t support the extra year in office.

“My belief is that we were all voted in for four years,” Morey said. “For us to come out and essentially give ourselves an extra year is something that I’m just not set with. That should be something left up to the people.”

Mayor Ron Pappas couldn’t quite grasp the moral dilemma Morey spoke about.

“It is an adjustment,” Pappas said. “In our two-by-twos, we have certainly talked about the adjustment and the willingness of all of us that are on this cycle to basically volunteer to give another year of our time toward this effort to keep everything moving and making sure we can achieve our goals, but I think the bigger picture is for all of those to be successful beyond us will be able to be on the right cycle. It really is all about the voter turnout that we have had very little success on.”

Two-by-twos is a reference to meetings purposely managed so the board does not have quorum.

Pappas rationalizes that if the board is comfortable with the jobs they are doing, then this is the right time to change the elections.

Mayor Pappas has done a great job representing Waxhaw. He has some skills that far exceed his predecessors; however, he won his seat in the 2019 election by a mere seven votes. How can he justify bypassing the voters on this issue?

The rest of the commissioners tried to rationalize why now was the time to move the cycle, but none of them convinced us why they should be granted another year in office without voter consent. Darth Vader gave a more compelling reason in “Star Wars” why he helped destroy democracy and turned to the dark side than these people.

“There’s never a good time to make this kind of change,” Commissioner Tracy Wesolek said. “But if there is a good time it would be this year because I have a feeling with all the COVID restrictions the voter turnout would be even less than what it normally is. It would be a very difficult year for the citizens to meet candidates. I don’t know if there would be forums or debates.”

‘Leaders should show courage

Commissioner Anne Simpson told Morey that if he didn’t feel comfortable serving an extra year that he should resign so the board can select a successor. This brings me to my next point.

If Waxhaw commissioners really wanted to engage voters, they would shift from four-year terms to two-year terms. And if cost was really a concern, they would try to hold all of the elections at the same time, not staggered.

The problem with four-year terms in fast-growing communities like Waxhaw is elected leaders quit before their terms end. That’s how Jason Hall joined the board. He filled a vacancy when Kat Lee resigned in March.

Again, the board picks the replacement. Not the voters.

Two-year terms also ensure that commissioners are more likely to answer your phone calls and emails. They’re more likely to organize a town hall to engage with citizens in the second year of a two-year term than the second year of a four-year term. In other words, there’s a greater sense of urgency to connect with you.

Mayor Pro Tem Brenda McMillon mentioned the Charlotte City Council is considering shifting its cycles from two-year terms to four-year terms. The difference between Charlotte and Waxhaw, however, is the city has done everything publicly. A citizens advisory committee recommended higher pay and longer terms for the mayor and city council. The city council has been vetting these ideas publicly for several weeks – even last night.

Town leaders may have the right to do what they did last night, but that doesn’t mean they should.

If Mayor Pappas and town commissioners believe they are the chosen ones to get Waxhaw on track to greatness, then they should have the courage to adjust their terms so that they end earlier to give citizens a voice. Let the voters decide if your achievements as mayor or commissioners warrant more time on the dais.

But don’t say you’re trying to encourage more public engagement when the actions you took last night were designed to bypass the public.

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