What could be more democratic than the Davidson town board deciding – on Tuesday, June 14 – to require a public referendum before an ordinance lengthening the mayor’s term and commissioners’ terms from two-to-four years, would come into effect? Recall that there was no provision for such a referendum in the board’s original resolution of intent.

Mayor Woods and the five commissioners (Venzon, Williams, Wessner, Jenest and Dreffer) were planning to pull a fast one by unilaterally adopting longer terms without the approval of the voting public. It amounted to an incumbency protection maneuver.

Without any discernible public demand for such a change, the board had nakedly taken a top-down approach to usurping power. They knew best.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: When word spread over what they were conspiring to do, a strong negative public reaction set in, and the specter arose of a citizen-initiated petition to force a referendum. It was only then that the board decided to seek voter approval.

The incumbents could terminate the ringer they are putting the village through by letting the amendment to the charter die. However, they are committed to pressing forward, one important reason being that they are not comfortable when all five have to oppose each other in a wide-open election every two years (the normal practice in all other Mecklenburg county jurisdictions). Moreover, for all to stand for election at the same time is for all to risk being voted out at the same time!

Just weeks before filing for local office begins on July 1, the vote on four-year terms –subject voters’ approval in a referendum – is likely to be on the board’s agenda. The proposed change would allow a “pass” for Mayor Woods: he (or whoever is elected mayor) will be guaranteed a four-year term – prospectively effective in 2013. Two of five commissioners will win the lottery prize of longer terms in 2013.

The board has absolute control in determining the wording of the referendum, on a separate ballot; but the resolution it passes must describe “the proposed charter amendment briefly but completely.”

The language should be substantially consistent with the following: “Shall the ordinance amending the charter of the Town of Davidson to increase the terms of the five members of the board of commissioners from two years to four years, staggered, and to increase the term of the mayor from two years to four years, be approved?” Yea or nay?

The commissioners are gambling that the advantages of being in office will enable them to convince voters to embrace four-year terms, while standing for re-election on the same date (Nov. 8). But they have gone too far in messing around with the voting franchise of a free people.

Citizens may very well elect a majority from challengers to the incumbents and defeat the referendum.

– William E. Jackson Jr., Davidson