Project genesis and further development

One of the first efforts to deal with these changes occurred with the formation of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Citizens Forum (CMCF) in 1984. Conflict between development interests and neighbourhood groups on rezoning issues provided the impetus for developing the Citizens Forum. Leaders from the two groups as well as other community leaders were invited to a weekend retreat to discuss these conflicts and consider ways of improving the dialogue. This group of leaders found that there was more agreement than disagreement among them concerning the future growth of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. They initiated a dialogue and decided to formalize the first discussions with the formation of CMCF. While this new organization began largely as a way of maintaining open discussion among developers and neighbourhoods, its agenda soon expanded to include the broadest array of development and community issues. It became more action-oriented, and its membership was expanded, although membership in the organization continued to be by invitation only.

During the first three years of its existence, the Forum achieved significant successes in directing public policy to respond to emerging issues. The Forum initiated Project Catalyst, which was a partnership of community groups seeking to redevelop and revitalize a run-down area in Northwest Charlotte around Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black institution. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, an effort to promote affordable housing for low-income residents, was a Forum project. The Forum also advocated and eventually prevailed in establishing a new policy for the expansion of water and sewer lines into selected portions of the county as a method of redirecting growth. In addition, the once heated exchange between developers and citizens had become much more amiable and less threatening to community consensus.

By 1987, discussions at Forum meetings had taken on a new tenor. Broader issues such as traffic congestion and dissatisfaction with the public schools threatened the continued growth and prosperity of the community, and a feel-ing persisted that the leadership process was failing to respond to these issues. The campaign for mayor in 1987 and the eventual outcome of that campaign led community leaders to the conclusion that a new method was needed to address the problems facing Charlotte.

The 1987 mayoral contest was between Harvey Gantt, a popular two-term mayor who had successfully wedded his representation of the disadvantaged and neighborhoods groups with the desires of the business community, and Sue Myrick, a maverick politician who had served an uneventful term on the city council. Challenger Myrick continually used the traffic congestion issue as evidence that the incumbent had failed to respond to the needs of all Charlotteans.

The mayoral contest brought Sue Myrick to office, a person who was an unknown to the traditional leadership and who had defeated a highly respected African-American mayor. Her agenda was composed almost entirely of one item relieving traffic congestion but she said little in terms of methods to accomplish that end. These events catalyze the discussions in the Forum. Changes in the methods of achieving community goals were evident, and many worried that these changes could endanger ongoing efforts to build community-wide consensus.

Some members of the Forum were aware of the National Civic League’s de-velopment of a Civic Index to evaluate a community’s “civic infrastructure,” or its ability to govern itself through consensus and cooperation. The League began to advocate the use of this technique because it seemed to fit what the group saw as the problem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg: a diminution of the ability to govern with consensus on a commonly held view of progress. Negotiations began with representatives of the National Civic League and were concluded successfully. Under the sponsorship of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Citizens Forum, the community became one of the first in the nation to use the Civic Index to evaluate the effectiveness of its civic infrastructure.

Building Coalitions for the Future in Charlotte-Mecklenburg

Public decision-making in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is and has been weighted heavily toward the business community. In fact, governmental decisions are often seen as an extension of private-sector influence. For the most part, this method of operation has provided local residents with a progressive, highly principled and uncorrupt government that has achieved significant results in building a “new” city.

Both local governments utilize the council-manager plan of local government organization, and both were among the first in the nation to adopt this form. These actions are further evidence of the influence of the business community in the public sectorthe adoption of the council-manager form was intended to make the administration of the governments more “busi-ness-like.” Charlotte has a non-executive mayor who is elected separately from the council, and Mecklenburg County’s executive is the chairman of the Board of Commissioners elected by that body from among its membership. In terms of administrative powers, Charlotte’s mayor has almost none. In practice, however, the mayor often has significant persuasive powers, since that office holder had traditionally been a spokesperson for the business community. It was not uncommon for a Charlotte mayor to have served as lay leader of the chamber of commerce or to have been active in chamber work over the years.

This system of politics as an extension of the business community began showing signs of unraveling in the 1970s. A bond referendum to build a new airport terminal and expand the runways was defeated. The airport expansion was a top priority of the business leadership, but it was torpedoed by a coalition of neighborhood interests led by the Westside Community Organization, representing the area in which the airport is located. The defeat of the referendum was a surprise and shock to business and governmental leaders. How could a motley crew of neighborhood leaders pull off such a victory and, perhaps more telling, why did they dare step in the path of progress?

The growth that the leadership had wanted and had been successful in achieving led to an unintended consequence: the community had become more pluralistic and many among these new groups felt disenfranchised and were willing to challenge the “establishment.”

Traditionally, the leadership had been resourceful in heading off such confrontations by persuading, cajoling and co-opting those potentially involved in opposing the prevailing view. With the business leadership at the forefront, the community had consolidated its school systems in the early 1960s; devised a plan to integrate the schools; preempted racial unrest by peacefully integrating eating and entertainment establishments; functionally consolidated the two primary local governments; introduced an effective planning function; and supported a high level of public investment in maintaining the viability of the downtown area. The same tactics were brought to bear on the opponents of the airport expansion. An intense campaign was undertaken to persuade the opponents that airport expansion was in the best interests of the Westside. They were told that it would bring new jobs and public investment to the area of the city most in need of economic opportunities, and the leadership continued to emphasize that a small band of citizens should not stand in the path of progress for the entire community. The tactics worked. The airport bonds were floated again and they passed, although this success occurred after the neighborhood coalition had forced a change in the form of city government.

The Westside Coalition had become a player in city-wide decisions and, through bulldog tenacity, what had now become a city-wide neighborhood coalition successfully placed on the ballot a referendum for district elections. This proposal was passed by the electorate, by a margin of less than 100 votes, after a heated campaign pitting (in general terms) the business community against the neighborhood activists. In the late 1970s, therefore, the city council changed from an at-large, seven-member council to an 11-member council with seven members nominated and elected by dis-tricts and four elected at-large. Business leadership continued to rail about the shortcomings of the district system and successfully placed the issue on the ballot for another vote. The citizenry overwhelmingly endorsed the district system in that election. The county commission, by its own initiative, changed to a mixed at-large and district system in the mid-1980s.

The seeds were sown in the decade of the 1970s for experimentation with new methods of achieving consensus and understanding the community, leading to consideration of the National Civic League’s Civic Index tool in the late 1980s. Because progress was the preeminent value for the business and governmental leadership, efforts were made to accommodate the new pluralism rather than taking the negative course of fighting the changes brought on by a more diverse and participatory society.