News: CJ Exclusives

Kinston Could Become Second N.C. City With Mayoral Veto

Referendum on Nov. 8 ballot would make mayor 'more than a figurehead'

If the “yea” votes have it, Kinston could be one of the only towns in North Carolina to give its mayor veto power. Local voters will decide the matter in a referendum scheduled for the Nov. 8 ballot.

Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, introduced House Bill 310, also known as the Mayoral Veto Bill, in the General Assembly last spring after Kinston Mayor B.J. Murphy requested the action. The bill passed unanimously, making way for the proposition to be brought before the people.

If passed, the mayor will have seven days to veto any action taken by the council. The vetoed item would be placed immediately on the next agenda for consideration, and four of the five council members would have to vote for the measure to override the mayor’s veto.

Charlotte is the only city in North Carolina that gives its mayor veto powers. The General Assembly controls the charters of all cities, towns, and villages in the state, so legislative action was required to give Kinston voters the opportunity to decide it they wanted a mayoral veto.

Murphy, 30, was the youngest mayor on record in the state when he was sworn in Dec. 7, 2009. He battled with city council members over House Bill 5, a measure that would have repealed forced annexation in Kinston. The mayor favored H.B. 5 and let constituents know by sending them a message on official letterhead detailing his position on the matter. (The bill passed the House and is pending in the Senate.)

During a Feb. 12 council meeting, Murphy said he was both chastised and marginalized. He said the council voted 4-1 to remove him from the Highway 70 Corridor Commission and 3-2 to remove the mayor’s signature from documents and ordinances unless he received the council’s express permission.

“It was a personal vendetta,” he said. “It was all in the same breath as forced annexation, and they were trying to send a message to me.”

After the confrontation, Murphy decided the mayor should be more than a figurehead and should have the right to veto council decisions.

“The mayor is the chief elected official, as duly elected as the council, but has no formal say in the budget, hiring, or day-to-day items,” he said. “Yet the mayor is still held accountable for those decisions by the people. The mayor having veto power would be in the citizens’ best interest. It would provide a series of checks and balances.”

LaRoque said he responded with H.B. 310 after Murphy inquired about securing veto power. LaRoque said it made sense for the mayor to have a veto because it not only allows more deliberation before final council actions are taken, but also adds a needed cooling-off period when hotly contested issues arise.

“Right now, the position is more ceremonial and has no real authority,” LaRoque said. “The mayor should have some ability to direct policy instead of a bully pulpit. I know the mayor of Kinston would appreciate having it.”

Councilwoman Alice Tingle disagrees with both Murphy and LaRoque. She said Kinston’s mayor has a distinct, clear, and “very powerful role” as a spokesman for the city and a meeting manager, and that shouldn’t change.

Tingle said H.B 310 should have a broader scope.

“I look at it this way,” she said. “If Steven LaRoque pushed this for Lenoir County, then why didn’t he push it for the other counties he represents, or for the entire state? Why is he picking on Kinston?”

LaRoque said he would be willing to introduce a new bill before the House of Representatives allowing any mayor in his district who wants to change his role from passive to active. “I think all the mayors are going to want to have veto power if it passes in Kinston,” he said. “I would run legislation for any mayor if it was requested.”

LaRoque said he isn’t surprised that most council members are opposed to the mayor having veto power.

“Certain people don’t like other people to have extra authority,” he said. “But we’ll let the voters decide for themselves in the upcoming election.”

Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.