Former mayors, council members speak against changing Lewisville charter

Published 12:10 am Thursday, June 21, 2018

By Jim Buice

If the Lewisville Town Council listens to former mayors and council members who paraded to the podium in last Thursday night’s public hearing, it won’t change a thing when it comes to the town charter and term limits.

That was the overwhelming sentiment expressed in the June meeting to the council when the hearing was called on amending the town charter by repealing Section 3-5, Governing Body Limitation on Terms of Office to be in compliance with the N.C. Constitution as interpreted by the N.C. Supreme Court.

“I believe that it was unfortunate that this item was brought up and placed on the agenda for consideration,” said former council member Ken Sadler. “To my knowledge there was no request on the part of the legislature that the town modify the charter. The notion that the charter has to align with the constitution after 26 years makes no sense. Therefore, there is no compelling reason to change.”

Bo Houff, the longtime town attorney for Lewisville, said that the issue came up in a planning meeting with council in January when various issues related to the charter were discussed, including term limits, at which time “I dropped what I think was a bomb on all the council members who had not been previously aware of it to my knowledge and advised them that term limits for municipal council members and mayors are not allowed under the N.C. Constitution.”

The proposed amendment would remove a provision in the charter that imposes eight-year term limits on the mayor and council members, and has been honored since the town’s incorporation in 1991. The mayor and members of the council who have served four consecutive two-year terms have abided by the charter provision without exception and have not challenged it.

In 1992, the N.C. Supreme Court issued an opinion in a case involving a N.C. statute that required a holder of one elective office to resign that office before running for another elective office. In that case, Moore vs. Knightdale Board of Elections, the Supreme Court determined that such a requirement violated the N.C. Constitution, which contains only two requirements to run for office – being 21 years of age and being eligible to vote for the office sought.

Houff said that an article was written by the N.C. School of Government in 2010 and that he found it some time after that and spoke with the prior town manager. However, they determined at the time that since this provision of the charter had never been challenged or questioned in any way and that it seemed to be a popular charter provision, that they would wait and not initiate comment on it until such time it was challenged, someone asked a specific question or if a citizen inquired about it.

Since it surfaced in January, Houff said that it has been discussed at length over the last few months and after advising the council that term limits for municipal council members and mayors are not allowed under the N.C. Constitution, he was asked to look at the procedure for the possible amendment of a charter provision, which he found in the General Statutes, Section 160A-102.

That set into motion a resolution of intent by the council to set a public hearing, following a vote by the council no sooner than the next scheduled meeting of the council or within 60 days.

Since a couple of members of the council will be absent in July, they approved having the vote in the Aug. 9 meeting.

Houff noted that although the proposed charter amendment, if passed, would remove a provision that the N.C. Supreme Court has ruled to be unconstitutional under the N.C. Constitution, even if the charter amendment were not passed, the provision would still be unenforceable. The mayor and council members may still wish to limit themselves to four consecutive terms of office, as has been done in the past, but this limitation is not enforceable, if it were challenged.

Meanwhile, previous mayors and council members made their feelings known to the council.

“One thing that term limits has done for this town has set Lewisville aside from the others,” said Dan Pugh, former mayor and council member. “I know we’ve been the envy of many, many communities even here in Forsyth County. Whether it be mandated or voluntary, I think it’s served the best interests of this town.

“I would urge you to consider that and not amend the charter to do away with term limits. From a legal aspect, it’s probably not enforceable until challenged and probably not enforceable at that point, but I think public sentiment, public opinion will enforce it.”

Bob Stebbins, also a former mayor and councilman, said, “My concern is the fact that if you look around at other towns who have no term limits, people have been in those jobs for 30, 40 years. Nothing changes. They have no new ideas. This town has a reputation of being a town that plans ahead, gets things done and is a great place for people to live. I just don’t think we should be messing with the charter.”

Jane Welch, who served on the original council and four other terms with a two-year break, said that there were many reasons considered when the town moved forward with term limits in the original charter — including allowing more people to serve along with generating new ideas and not having people being comfortable after being elected time and time again.

“Why do we not put this question to our community, to our people?” Welch asked. “They should have a chance to say the way they feel.”

Gordon Bingham, who was on the committee to incorporate when the town was formed, said that many of those early thoughts expressed in the various forums were that residents favored providing opportunities for citizens to get involved and avoiding the possibility of any kind of entrenchment.

“Hence, the founding documents in the charter the provision for term limits,” Bingham said. “It was for those reasons that the term limits were instituted. Since that time, a number of people have come up against those term limits, and whether or not they knew about this issue, they all stepped aside.”

Bingham also encouraged the council to consider having staggered terms, which could help with continuity going forward.

Jerry Farmer also was part of the original steering committee. He remembers all the hard work from those early days and said that Lewisville has benefitted from having term limits previously honored by town council candidates and that the charter should remain intact unless required to change for legal reasons.

Tom Lawson, another former mayor and council member, said he “couldn’t say it any better than Ken or the others.”

Sadler, who spoke first in the public hearing and last during the general comments portion of the meeting, added that everyone on the council was aware of the term limits and the tradition of serving four terms and rotating off before they ran again for office.

“So anyone wishing to challenge the charter could do so and run for an additional term, and I suspect the town would not go to court over that decision,” Sadler said. “However, it would clearly signal to the citizens that the individuals doing so had no respect for the traditions of the town.

“Consider the fact that nine individuals have honored the intent of the charter — some having done so on more than one occasion. Just because the council can do something, doesn’t mean that it should. In my opinion, no changes to the charter should be made without the opportunity for the citizens to vote on the proposed changes.”

Mayor Mike Horn said he appreciated hearing from noble colleagues and great friends, and that the comments were “well-received and very much appreciated.”