Would York County be better off if its County Council members stuck around longer?
That’s what some municipalities think. The Rock Hill City Council on Monday passed a resolution urging the York County Council to extend members’ terms from two years to four. The municipal councils of Fort Mill and Tega Cay recently passed similar resolutions, and the York City Council is also planning to take up the proposal next month.
Currently, all seven members of the York County Council are elected for two-year terms. The cities’ resolution calls on the county to adopt staggered, four-year terms, with only half of the council up for election every other year.
Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said several mayors in York County have discussed the issue and decided to make a coordinated push for a change, citing the advantages of having elected officials stick around longer.
“Running a county or a municipality is big business,” Echols said. “You need some continuity among elected officials to be sure you’re going in the right direction.”
Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard first got the idea last year after a meeting with the County Council.
“As I listened to them, I thought, ‘Some of these people may no longer be there in a year and a half,’ ” Sheppard said. He thought relations between the municipalities’ councils – which all have four-year terms – would have a more “cohesive” relationship with the county if they served an equivalent amount of time.
“If you’re entirely new to council, it takes you about six to eight months just to get acclimated,” Sheppard said. “Then you have to spend six to eight months running for re-election. So there’s not a lot of time to do what you want to do.”
Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage says “even the best elected officials” can feel a drag from campaigning, and doesn’t think such frequent elections promote a good approach to governing.
“If you’re an elected official, you know how important it is to have consistent, dedicated leadership,” Savage said. “This way, you don’t have a risk of the entire council being replaced at once. The risk may be small, but it’s avoidable.”
If the York County Council ultimately decides to make a switch to four-year terms, the change would have to be approved in a voter referendum. Sheppard said he hopes the issue could be put on the ballot in November, when the York County Council will be up for re-election to a new two-year term.
Sheppard said he’s spoken to York County Chairman Britt Blackwell about making a switch, and thinks it could at least come up for discussion with so many municipalities asking for a change. He’d like the mayors involved to formally present the resolutions to the County Council at some point.
Blackwell said Tuesday the council could take the issue up as soon as its May meeting, although he says he doesn’t have a preference one way or the other.
“I have heard from the department heads, like (Sheriff) Bruce Bryant, that they feel like when we’re going through the budget process, the council is always running for office,” Blackwell said.
The York County Council last discussed making the change to four-year terms in 2009, when the council even gave initial approval to a referendum in a split 4-3 vote, but the idea ultimately didn’t pass.
In South Carolina, most county councils serve four-year terms. The one exception beside York County is Edgefield County.
York Mayor Eddie Lee said he’s added the item to the agenda for May’s meeting of the York City Council, but Lee says he personally prefers the two-year council structure.
“That allows voters to make changes more frequently,” Lee said, noting members of the S.C. House and U.S. House also serve for two years before they have to face voters again. “That goes back to 1787. It’s in the Constitution. It’s about basic government accountability.”
Lee has had his differences with the council. He pushed for the restoration of the historic York County Courthouse, and lobbied to keep the county headquarters in downtown York, when it looked like both functions could get moved out of the city’s main business district.
“The last time I was running for re-election, I heard some people comment they thought the term should be reduced in length,” Lee said.
But County Councilman Robert Winkler, one of two members serving their first term, said he would like to see an extension of council members’ terms.
“If you’ve never been in politics, there is a steep learning curve,” Winkler said. “And then a year in, you’re running for re-election again.”
Winkler faces a race for re-election in District 3 this year against fellow Republican Joe Cox, a former councilman who has won and lost consecutive races for the district’s council seat the last four elections. As if to highlight extension proponents’ fears, the district has elected three different candidates in eight years, one to nonconsecutive terms.
Any change wouldn’t affect the terms of those council members running for re-election this year, nor would it affect Winkler’s own long-term plans.
“I don’t plan on being a career politician,” Winkler said. “At most, that might mean running for two terms instead of four.”