Staggered Terms For Cumberland And Buckingham Boards Of Supervisors

Published 4:28 pm Thursday, February 17, 2011

The United States Senate is known far and wide as “the world's greatest deliberative body.”

The prestigious U.S. Senate is so exalted within our federal government that it holds key powers the House of Representatives cannot touch.

The Senate ratifies treaties.

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The Senate confirms members of the cabinet of the President of the United States.

The Senate confirms the appointments of federal judges.

The Senate confirms the appointments of ambassadors and military officers.

The Senate conducts the trials of federal officials impeached by the House.

And the United States Senate has staggered terms.

One-third of the Senate is elected every two years because it is thought absolutely crucial for this most august and powerful legislative body to retain and maintain continuity-corporate memory and understanding of the Senate's role in our government and how the challenges of that role are met-while also remaining readily answerable on election day to the people. The Senate will always have at least two-thirds of its members, men and women of experience able to tackle the tough domestic and foreign policies upon which hangs the fate of this nation.

If staggered terms were thought vital to the United States Senate then staggered terms would certainly contribute to the legislative well being of Cumberland County for the very same reasons of continuity and effective County governance.

What's good enough for the U.S. Senate is good enough for the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors, and all legislative bodies. Many elected governing bodies do have staggered terms to ensure there can never be an entirely untested, inexperienced, rookie board of supervisors or town council.

Cumberland doesn't and is talking about it. Buckingham doesn't and isn't talking about it. Buckingham should talk about it and, as should Cumberland, do it.

Some citizens argue that the only way to retain the ability to enact effective change is keeping the power to “throw all the bums out.” But wholesale ineptness through wholesale inexperience isn't the kind of change most people really want. The learning curve after being elected to a board of supervisors takes about a year-through 12 months of governance and one budget cycle-to learn the ropes, and additional years to learn how to avoid tying knots in those ropes, or hanging the county in an unintended noose.

In another context, hardly any passengers board a 747 knowing how to fly, and how to safely land, the airliner.

Staggered terms should also make Boards of Supervisors more responsive and answerable to the people, or face the consequences of not doing so. Staggered terms do ensure continuity but they also allow voters to express their agreement or disagreement with Board of Supervisors policies every two years-as they do in the U.S. Senate-rather than once every four years. And voters can do so without fearing their Board of Supervisors will be left totally void of experience.

Staggered terms allow voters to make a course correction in the direction of county government without crippling their local governing body by getting rid of everybody, and all of that experience, at once. They can, if they wish, “throw half of the bums out” and expect their message to be sent or everyone else goes in two years for a clean sweep-but in time for the new board members to have had two years of experience and ready to lead the way if the other incumbents lose two years later.

If the U.S. Senate were to do something extremely unpopular after an election, without staggered terms voters would have to wait six years, by which time it is less likely those constituents would be primed to make senators answerable for their actions. And if they did keep their anger kindled for six years and voted everyone out, “the world's greatest deliberative body” would be a shambles of legislative mishap and ineffective meandering.

But even in that worst-case scenario, which can never happen with staggered terms, our nation would still have the House of Representatives, along with the President and the executive branch.

Counties, however, do not have bicameral legislatures. The Board of Supervisors is the be-all end-all of local government. Wipe out the entire Board of Supervisors in an election and there is nothing to take its place while the rookies try to learn from their mistakes, miscalculations and errors of judgment that could set a county back years and years.

Cumberland County, and Buckingham, too, would be wise to follow the lead of the United States Senate and enact staggered terms for the benefit of their counties, their constituents and their collaborative effort to build a better future for the community they call home.

Staggered terms can help communities avoid staggering into a future they would be better without.