Waynesville election to take on new dynamic this year

Mar. 1—This year is the last time all five seats on the Waynesville town board will be on the ballot at the same time.

Waynesville leaders have finally decided to shift to an alternating election schedule to avoid the potential scenario of a clean sweep of the town board in a single election.

"A complete turnover of the board could cause quite a bit of instability, and quite possibly a state of turmoil," Alderman Chuck Dickson said.

The loss of institutional knowledge — from inner workings of town departments to complex budget issues — could be crippling, Dickson said.

"If you have staggered terms, at least half the council would have a working knowledge of the town," Dickson said.

An alternating schedule — with only a portion of the seats up for election every other year — is the standard model across the state. Waynesville is the only elected board in Haywood County that doesn't have staggered terms.

For more than a decade, the town board has debated whether to make the switch. Dickson in particular has continued to champion the move to staggered terms, however. He had brought it up consistently every year since being elected to the town board four years ago.

But Dickson hadn't been able to move the needle until now.

Mayor Gary Caldwell had been a hold out opposing the move. One of his concerns was that at least part of the board would always be in election mode, potentially more concerned with how their votes would play in the court of public opinion than doing what was best for the town.

But Dickson kept bringing it up.

"We've addressed this for a dozen years. It's time to do it," Dickson said, broaching the issue again last week during the town board's annual planning workshop.

This time, Caldwell said he'd seen the light.

"I see Chuck's point about potentially losing the whole board at one whack. That would be devastating to the town," Caldwell said.

Such a scenario has never happened, however. In fact, the Waynesville town board has been marked by long-running stability.

Turn-over is rare. In at least 25 year, no sitting town board member who's run for re-election has been ousted by a challenger, with seats turning over only when someone died or stepped down by choice.

The lone exception was when two board members ran against each other for mayor four years ago — and only one could win.

Not having staggered terms has created a sense of unity that's rare among elected boards. Town board members are married to each other for at least four years at a whack, not only governing together but running together when election time rolls around.

Mechanics of making the switch

All five seats on the town board will be for election one last time this year.

However, starting with this year's election, two of the town board members would only serve for two years before being back on the ballot again — thus setting the stage for staggered terms going forward. The other two board members plus the mayor would get to serve the full four years.

One decision point is figuring out who would get short shrift. Dickson said there's two options: drawing straws from among the winners or basing it on the vote tally.

"I am fine with either way," Dickson said.

The town board decided the fairest system is for the top two vote getters to land four-year terms, while the aldermen in third and fourth place get two-year terms.

In the 2019 election, Dickson and Alderman Jon Feichter were the top two vote getters, with Julia Freeman and Anthony Sutton coming in third and fourth.

One downside of the switch is the cost of holding more elections, which comes out of the town's budget. Instead of one election every four years, the town will now have to pay to conduct an election every two years.

Even though the majority of town board members had favored making the switch before now, with Caldwell as a hold out, the board mistakenly believed it was a non-starter.

Historically, the assumption was that a bill would have to be passed in the N.C. General Assembly to ratify any switch to staggered terms. Getting a so-called "local bill" passed in Raleigh requires the local delegation to be unanimous.

"There was a mistaken belief that it had to go through the legislature, which by default meant it had to be unanimous among the board," Town Manager Rob Hites explained.

But, it turns out, a bill in Raleigh isn't required. Instead, the town can make the switch of its own accord.

That means it doesn't have to be unanimous after all, but Alderman Jon Feicther said it would be preferable.

"I believe if we are going to pursue it, it should be a unanimous vote if for no other reason than the optics of it," Feichter said.

There is still a process that must be followed to make the switch, but there's time to accomplish that before town election season gets underway this summer.

The move to staggered terms must be officially adopted before the candidate filing period opens in July. There's no primary, only the general election in the fall, because the town board race isn't partisan.

The town board plans to hold a public hearing on the issue in coming months.