DAVIDSON – About 18 Davidson residents gathered in Town Hall Tuesday night, Nov. 30, to fire questions and opinions at Mayor John Woods and members of the Board of Commissioners.
In a room where citizens usually sit and listen in the audience, the commissioners formed an inclusive circle to give everyone a front-row seat.
“We are a small town, we are neighbors, we are friends,” Woods said. “We are not coming to you with an agenda tonight. We want to talk about what you want to talk about.”
Woods opened the floor, and just as Commissioner Laurie Venzon was beginning to joke about the awkward silence that always ensues when the floor is open, two or three residents’ hands darted up to show they weren’t there to waste time.
The first question addressed a new and unfamiliar issue in Davidson, which first surfaced at the board’s regular work session Nov. 23. At that meeting, Town Manager Leamon Brice presented a potential amendment to the town’s charter – “The idea of a four-year term for your elected officials on a staggered schedule, so that all six of us don’t come up for election at one time,” Woods said Tuesday night.
The proposal would not require an extension of the current commissioners’ terms.
Brice offered a few reasons for his proposal. First, as he tried to plan the board meetings and work sessions, he realized each new commissioner spends about a third of his or her two-year term learning the ins and outs of town planning. But board members only have about four weeks after their terms begin before they have to start balancing the budget.
Commissioner Connie Wessner supported Brice’s observations. Despite her political-science background and 12 years she spent working with the town before she joined the board in 2009, “I feel like I’ve become comfortable with what we’re doing only in the last four months.”
With the current structure, one election could replace the entire board, and its members would all be unfamiliar with processes the town follows.
Second, Brice said he researched other towns in North Carolina, and among towns comparable to Davidson’s size, Davidson is part of a small minority that do not have four-year staggered terms. In municipalities with populations between 10,000 and 25,000, 28 out of 39 have four-year terms.
“I also looked at what municipalities have done from 1981 to 2007, and the trend is most of the movement has been from two-year terms to four-year terms,” Brice said.
Third, Brice said two-year terms can limit a commissioner’s ability to accomplish goals for the town.
“The time it takes to accomplish things is sometimes longer than the terms,” Brice said. “Connie was elected a year ago, and it may be that she got something started this year that we won’t see three years from now. (A staggered four-year term) puts the term and the time it takes to accomplish things together.”
Davidson resident Rodney Graham raised one of the few objections, saying two-year terms force commissioners to campaign every two years, which also forces them to be more involved in the community.
Balancing the budget
The board then faced questions of what to do about the town’s debt.
“A lot of that is looking at downtown development, looking at what we need to do to move forward,” Wessner said. Several years ago, she said, a lot of the development in the town was residential, “and so what we’re talking about now is, ‘How do we expand that commercial base?’”
The town’s commitment to MI-Connection plays a significant role in Davidson’s finances. Venzon said the town had expected the company to become profitable by 2013, but the bad economy has pushed that back a couple of years.
“The subsidy that we gave last year – Are we going to have to do something like that this year? Most likely,” Venzon said. “But will it be more than we did last year? Probably not.”
In general, development in downtown and in the town’s economic centers remains atop the list of priorities.
Recovering the IB building
Board members and residents also discussed what might happen to the Davidson IB building.
On Nov. 9, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education voted to move the Davidson IB program to J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, in part because the IB school’s building requires significant renovations and repairs.
That leaves town residents asking, “What happens when the students are gone?”
Board members didn’t have an answer Tuesday night.
Instead, Woods asked the public, “How would you like to see the building used?”
A flurry of ideas, from a site for entertainment to a public workout facility, filled the room. Woods said the town would have to first negotiate with the school system to purchase the building, after determining whether the repairs are manageable.
The commissioners plan to hold similar chats every quarter, and Woods said he hopes to bring the chats to residents by holding them in neighborhoods, rather than at Town Hall.