It’s hard to overstate the importance of North Charleston these days.
The city is the state’s industrial center, its leader in retail sales and a hub of transportation and commerce. South Carolina’s third-largest city is now more vital, prosperous and crucial to the state’s economy than at any other point in its nearly 50-year history.
So, it would be a shame to turn the operation over to a bunch of greenhorns.
When filing for the November elections closed on Monday, 21 people had qualified to run for eight of North Charleston’s 10 City Council seats. Only incumbent council members Mike A. Brown and Rhonda Jerome didn’t draw challengers.
Now, change isn’t necessarily bad — even veteran council members will tell you that new blood is good.
But too much at once and you’re just bleeding.
Most cities and counties take precautions against such wholesale turnover. In fact, nearly every government in the Lowcountry staggers its council elections so that only half their members are on the ballot at once.
The reason for that is simple: It ensures some continuity of institutional knowledge, and guarantees there will always be at least a few elected officials around who understand how things work.
North Charleston is the lone outlier, at least in this part of the state. The city operates under an antiquated law that puts everyone on the chopping block at once — all 10 council members, as well as the mayor.
And that’s a problem.
Consider this: Come November, North Charleston could have a new mayor and eight freshmen council members in charge of the Lowcountry’s nerve center. No doubt that makes officials in the county and city of Charleston a tad nervous.
That’s not statistically likely, of course, and it might have even been OK when the city was starting out in 1972 with a budget of less than $1 million. But these days North Charleston is a $180 million annual operation. A little stability is not only a good idea, it’s necessary for the entire region.
This is, after all, home to a major airport, major interstates and — much to the chagrin of commuters — major rail lines.
City officials have talked about staggering council terms for years, but there’s always been some resistance. Which is political, of course. But it appears the idea is finally gaining traction.
“Everybody is starting to listen,” Councilwoman Jerome says.
Council began discussing this idea seriously in the spring, and hopes to have a referendum to change the city’s election laws on the ballot next year.
The measure would spread out North Charleston City Council races so that five of the 10 members stand for election every two years — just as Charleston, Mount Pleasant and the county do now.
This new system would also require a majority of votes to win elected office. Right now, it only takes a plurality. In other words, if four people run for a council seat — or mayor — the person with the most votes wins. With the change, elections would require a candidate to get one vote over the 50 percent threshold or face a runoff.
For years, North Charleston council members have been wary of tinkering with the system because, well, a lot of folks eye change suspiciously. And, frankly, it won’t be pleasant for some elected officials.
Half of council would have to run for shorter, two-year terms to get the system going, and the requirement of a majority vote could force the mayor and council members into runoffs.
In this election, for instance, the mayor’s race and four council races have more than three candidates. That increases the likelihood that no one gets 50 percent out of the gate.
That’s a pain for candidates and voters, but it’s a fair price to ensure a city the size of North Charleston never falls into the hands of 11 newbies at once.
In fact, city leaders aren’t real upset the referendum won’t be on the ballot this year. This is an important decision, probably too important to leave in the hands of the usual paltry off-year turnout.
This may sound like election bureaucracy, but spreading out those council elections is an important safeguard for the city, and voters need to remember that.
Council terms need to be staggered, so North Charleston doesn’t stumble.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.