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.