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Raleigh postpones an election without bothering to ask

·3 min read

Country music giant Charlie Rich was right: no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

But Raleigh citizens should know – when it comes to the city’s leadership and decisions it makes that affect them.

Citizens don’t, unfortunately, know how the Raleigh City Council reached a decision to postpone its next election. By a 7-1 vote this month, the council decided to ask state lawmakers to postpone the 2021 municipal election and extend members’ terms by a year.

Senate Bill 722 would, among other things, push back elections in most municipalities until March 2022, delaying them by a few months, but it would give Raleigh’s current council members an extra year on the job by changing their elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years. The bill also would eliminate runoffs, meaning council members would be elected by a mere plurality.

The rationale? The U.S. Census Bureau announced that it won’t be releasing district-level data until the end of September, impacting the five council seats that are elected based on geography. September, council members decided by a 7-1 vote, is apparently too close to the scheduled November election, so they voted to delay the election. And give themselves another year in office — another unelected year in office.

Expecting the copious amounts of data from the census to be diced, sliced, analyzed and redrawn in just over a month may be unrealistic, and the council’s decision may actually be for the best. The way they reached that decision was most definitely not.

Going behind closed doors, debating among themselves for an hour and voting in private to postpone an election is not the kind of process citizens should expect from the the city council of the state capital. Public mistrust of politicians is such that even the appearance of self-dealing and impropriety must be avoided, and the last thing we need is for city council members to emerge from a figurative smoke-filled room with a decision bearing no public input.

Raleigh City Attorney Robin Tatum defended the process, saying in an email that a vote in open session was not required, The News & Observer’s Anna Johnson reports.

“Given the legal issues related to an October 2021 election and the substantial consequences to the City that would occur if an election was held and later determined to be unconstitutional, the discussion and potential solutions were covered by the attorney-client privilege,” Tatum said.

North Carolina statute does allow the city council to preserve attorney-client privilege when discussing matters that could result in legal action. Voting in private is another matter, and at least one state senator wasn’t buying it.

“What I do have a problem with is the citizens of Raleigh haven’t had an opportunity to comment on any of this,” Sen. Dan Blue told the News & Observer. Blue said wasn’t necessarily opposed to the proposed changes, but to the manner through which it came to the legislature. “I feel the electorate should be able to debate such fundamental changes” to the way officials are elected, he said.

So do we. There’s an old political maxim about laws and sausages: it’s better not to see them being made. But the people deserve to see how their laws are made. For all we know, it may turn out that city council members did the right thing for the right reason on their next election.

We already know, though, that they didn’t do it the right way.

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