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Forms of North Carolina City Government

Modifying a City's Charter - Summary with Questions and Answers

A North Carolina city's charter is an act of the North Carolina General Assembly, and normally only the General Assembly can amend one of its own acts. Nevertheless, by enactment of G.S. 160A-101 through 160A-111 (the "charter change statute") the General Assembly has delegated this power to amend a city's charter to that city's council, or voters, or both. (Throughout this summary, municipalities are referred to as cities. The word should be understood to also include municipalities that are called either towns or villages. In addition, the materials refer to a city's governing board as the council. The term should be understood to also include governing boards that are called boards of commissioners or boards of aldermen.)

It is important to recognize that the General Assembly's delegation is limited in scope. The charter provisions that may be amended by a city council or city voters are listed in G.S. 160A-101, and that listing is exclusive. If a council or a city's voters wish to amend the city's charter to make some sort of change not included in the listing, the council or the voters must request the General Assembly to make the change. The charter change statute is not available to them.

If a city uses the charter change statute to amend its charter, that action is final; there is no need for any sort of action by the General Assembly to ratify what the city has done. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that although the General Assembly has delegated this power of charter amendment to cities and city voters, the legislature has not relinquished its own authority to amend a city's charter. For that reason, a city that wishes to amend its charter has the choice of either using the charter change statute or asking the General Assembly to make the change. As noted, the statute does not affect the General Assembly's power to amend its own acts. (It is possible, though, that a city's representatives in the General Assembly will prefer that the city use the statutory procedures rather than seeking changes by legislative action.) Furthermore, nothing in the charter change statute bars the General Assembly from reversing an amendment made by a city council or a city's voters; the charter remains a legislative act and as such is always amenable to legislative change.

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FAQs

Does the statute really allow a city to change its very name?
Answer: 

It does. Sometimes a city might wish only to change the spelling of its name, as when "Hillsboro" became "Hillsborough." But city names have been changed completely in the past, as when Venable became Carrboro or Shoe Heel became Maxton, and the statute permits that sort of change as well. If one of the North Carolina beach towns wants to change its name to Malibu, the statute permits it to do so. (The statute delegates this power to city councils and city voters because a provision of the North Carolina state constitution prohibits the General Assembly itself from enacting legislation that changes a city's name.)

Is there any legal or practical difference between a "city," a "town," or a "village"?
Answer: 

Not in North Carolina. Although in some states a "city" has a different set of statutory powers than a "town" or a "village," that is not the case here. It is simply a matter of the community's own perception of itself. As a general rule, larger municipalities are styled as cities and smaller ones as towns or villages, but there are many exceptions. The Town of Cary, for example, is the seventh largest municipality in North Carolina, with more than 120,000 residents, while the City of Saluda has only a few hundred residents.

What about the name of the governing board – is there any practical difference between the various possibilities?
Answer: 

No. As with corporate style, it's simply a matter of local preference. The North Carolina general law for cities, G.S. Chapter 160A, uses the term "council," although as a matter of fact the majority of North Carolina cities use the term "board of commissioners."

G.S. 160A-101(4) provides that council members may serve either two-year terms or four-year terms, and that all terms need not expire in the same year. Does that mean a city can establish staggered two-year terms?
Answer: 

No. By state law municipal elections are held only in the odd-numbered years, and establishing staggered two-year terms would require that elections be held every year, including even-numbered years. The charter change statute does not permit cities to change the municipal election cycle.

The same provision states that council "terms need not be of the same length." How would that work?
Answer: 

A few cities elect some council members to four-year terms and other members – actually, usually only one member – to two-year terms. Take, for example, a council with five members. Every two years, three members are elected. Those two receiving the most votes get four-year terms, while the person finishing third gets a two-year term. As a result, a majority of the council – three members – is elected every two years. It might be noted that this system only works if the council members are elected at-large.

In addition, it would be possible for a city to designate certain seats on the council as two-year term seats and other seats as four-year terms seats, although no city currently has such a structure.

Why is 12 the maximum number of council members?
Answer: 

It's an accident of history. When the statute was first written, in the late 1960s, the largest city council in the state had 12 members, and that's why the maximum was set at that number.

A city that wishes to use districts in electing council members has a choice between types of districts. What are the choices?
Answer: 

The statute sets out three kinds of districts – voting districts, residence districts, and what might be called blended districts. In all three sorts of districts, a candidate who represents a district must reside in that district. What differs is the persons permitted to vote in a district's elections.

In voting districts the only people who vote in district elections are voters who reside in the district.

In residence districts all the city's voters vote in all district elections.

Blended districts are permitted only in cities using the nonpartisan primary method of election (see Question 12). In such a city, only district residents vote in a primary held for a district seat, but all the city's voters vote for district seats in the general election.

May a city have a mixture of at-large and district seats on its council?
Answer: 

Yes. The statute specifies that with each of the three kinds of districts, the city may also elect some council members at large. It does provide, though, that if some districts are used, no more than half the council may be elected at-large.

May a city use at-large elections when it uses the partisan election method?
Answer: 
G.S. 160A-101(6)a. states that in an at-large election, "all the qualified voters of the city" have a right to nominate candidates; and in a partisan election, only members of a particular party may vote in that party's primary.
 
A city with partisan elections may elect all council members on an at-large basis. When the statute refers to "all the qualified voters of the city," it is speaking in terms of residence. That is, a registered voter may participate in an at-large partisan primary regardless of where he or she lives within the city.
A previous question asked about mixing at-large and district seats on a single city council. Can a city use a mixture of types of districts to elect council members?
Answer: 

The statute does permit one mixture, a combination of voting districts and residence districts. Each district would elect two council members. One would be voted on and elected only by voters resident in the district. The other would be voted on and elected by all the voters of the city.

What are a city's choices with respect to the method of election?
Answer: 

The basic choice is between partisan elections, in which candidates run as the nominee of a political party, and nonpartisan elections, in which the ballot does not identify candidates by party. (As a practical matter, all but a handful of North Carolina cities use nonpartisan elections.) If a city wishes to use nonpartisan elections, it has three options.

What are the options with nonpartisan elections?
Answer: 

First, a city may select the plurality election method. In such an election, the candidate or candidates receiving the most votes is declared the winner or winners, even if one or more of them does not in fact get a majority of votes cast: the most votes wins. (This election method is described in detail in G.S. 163-292.)

Second, a city may select the election and runoff election method. In such an election, a candidate must receive a majority vote in order to be elected. If the highest vote-getter in the election does not receive a majority, the second-highest voter may call for a run-off election between the first and second-place finishers. (This election method is described in detail in G.S. 163-293.)

Third, a city may select the nonpartisan primary and election method. In such an election, a primary is held to reduce the field to two candidates per open seat. In a district election, if no more than two candidates file for a seat, no primary is held for that seat. In an at-large election, no primary is held unless more than twice as many candidates file as there are seats to be filled. (This election method is described in detail in G.S. 163-294.)

If a mayor is elected by the voters, the term is either two years or four years. What is the term for a mayor who is selected by and from the governing board?
Answer: 

The statute – G.S. 160A-101(8)b – provides that such a mayor serves at the pleasure of the governing board.

What if the city would prefer that such a mayor serve a specific term, such as one or two years?
Answer: 

If a city wishes a specific term for a mayor selected by and from the governing board, the city would have to request the General Assembly to make the necessary change to the city's charter. That is not an option available under G.S. 160A-101.

If a city has a mayor elected by voters, can the city use charter change procedures to give a mayor the right to vote on all issues? Is it possible only when the city changes methods of selecting the mayor, from selection by council to election by voters?
Answer: 

It is possible to make the voting change separately, with respect to a mayor who is already elected by the voters. Such a change could be made effective immediately and would not have to await the next election.

May the charter be amended to provide that a mayor who is selected by and from the governing board may only vote to break ties?
Answer: 

No. The statute specifically states that such a mayor "has the right to vote on all matters before the council." If a city wishes to limit the voting powers of such a mayor, it would have to request the General Assembly to make the necessary amendment to the city's charter.

What is the difference between a council-manager system of administration and a mayor-council system?
Answer: 

The fundamental difference is in who has the legal authority to hire and fire city employees. In a council-manager system, the manager has that power. (There are limited exceptions. Under G.S. 160A-173, city attorneys are appointed by city councils; and in some council-manager cities, the city charter provides that the council appoints and removes the city clerk and, very occasionally, the chief of police.) In a mayor-council system, the council collectively has the power.

160A-173 (pdf, 9.76 KB)
In some mayor-council cities, the council appoints an administrator, who then hires and fires employees. How is that possible?
Answer: 

In these cities the administrator's personnel powers exist by delegation from the council (as is permitted by G.S. 160A-155), and that delegation can be reversed at any time. A manager's personnel powers exist by statute, and the council cannot take them away.

160A-155 (pdf, 10.32 KB)
What must be in that first step, the resolution of intent?
Answer: 

The statute (G.S. 160A-102) directs that the resolution "describe the proposed charter amendments briefly but completely and with reference to the pertinent provisions of G.S. 160A-101." The resolution need not, though, set out the precise language of the proposed charter amendment.

Can the resolution specify alternatives, or leave some details until later in the process?
Answer: 
For example, can a resolution proposing to change to voting districts leave the number of districts to be decided later; or can a resolution proposing that the mayor be elected by the voters leave the length of the mayor's term to be decided later?
That's not clear. Rather than take a chance on whether an alternative or an incomplete resolution satisfies the statute, it might be preferable for the council to adopt separate and alternative resolutions. For example, it might adopt resolution A, providing for an elected mayor with a two-year term, and resolution B, providing for an elected mayor with a four-year term. Then, at the end of the process, the council can adopt an ordinance that is based on one or the other resolution, with the unused resolution being discarded.
Instead of that, could a council hold a preliminary hearing, before adopting the resolution of intent, to gauge public opinion, and then decide on the resolution after hearing what was said at the hearing?
Answer: 

Sure. Of course, the council would still have to hold the public hearing required by the charter change statute, which takes place after the resolution of intent is adopted.

May the resolution of intent be adopted at a special meeting?
Answer: 

Yes. Nothing in the statute requires that it be adopted at a regular meeting.

The statute requires that notice of the public hearing be "published". Is it enough to post the notice on the city's web site?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-101(7) provides that whenever the word "publish" is used in Chapter 160A, it means "insertion in a newspaper qualified under G.S. 1-597 to publish legal advertisements in the county or counties in which the city is located." Nothing bars the city from posting the notice on its website, but it also must always publish the notice in a qualifying newspaper.

What must be included in the notice?
Answer: 

It must set out the date, time, and place of the public hearing. In addition, the statute directs that it contain a summary of the proposed amendments.

Must the ordinance be adopted at a regular meeting?
Answer: 

No. Like the resolution of intent, the ordinance may be adopted at a special meeting. It may not be adopted, at the earliest, until the first regular meeting occurring after the public hearing. But it need not be adopted at that meeting or at a subsequent regular meeting. It simply must be adopted at some time within 60 days from the date of the hearing, whether at a regular meeting or a special meeting.

In adopting the ordinance, may the council include charter amendments different from with the amendments proposed in the resolution of intent?
Answer: 
For example, if the resolution of intent proposed changing council member terms from two-year terms to four-year staggered terms, may the ordinance establish four-year terms but without the staggering?
No. G.S. 160A-102 directs that the ordinance "implement the amendments proposed in the resolution of intent." If a council wishes to retain choice, such as between staggered and non-staggered four-year terms, it needs to adopt alternative resolutions of intent, as suggested above in the answer to Question 20.
What needs to be included in the notice published after adoption of the ordinance?
Answer: 

The statute requires that the notice state that the ordinance has been adopted and summarize its content and effect.

Does the notice need to inform citizens of their right to circulate petitions to force a referendum on the ordinance?
Answer: 

No. The statute does not include such a requirement.

If a council is in a hurry, how quickly can it complete these steps?
Answer: 

Depending on its regular meeting schedule, a council can finish the first five steps within two weeks or a month, and then publish the notice as soon as possible after the ordinance is adopted. To move this fast, a council would:

  • First adopt the resolution of intent and call the public hearing. To expedite the process as much as possible, the council would also call a special meeting, to be held before the next regular meeting (even earlier on the same day) and schedule the hearing for the special meeting.
  • Second, publish the notice of the public hearing; the hearing must be at least 10 days after the publication.
  • Third, at the special meeting, hold the public hearing.
  • Fourth, at the next regular meeting, which could be as quickly as later the same day, adopt the ordinance.
  • Five, publish notice that the ordinance has been adopted.

Of course, if the council decides to call a referendum on the ordinance, the process is lengthened; or if the voters present petitions that require a referendum before the ordinance is approved, the process is also lengthened. Finally, compliance with the Voting Rights Act might also extend the process.

It should be noted that it is rare for a council to move this quickly, inasmuch as the council usually wants to give voters more time to consider and comment on the proposal

Is there a deadline by which the process must be complete, in order to be effective at the next election?
Answer: 
>Yes. G.S. 160A-109 requires that any amendment affecting the election of mayor or council members must "be finally adopted and approved" at least 90 days before the first election to which it applies. In the terminology of the statute, the council "adopts" the ordinance, and the voters "approve" the ordinance, and so any referendum must be held at least 90 days before the first city election to which the ordinance will apply.
If the city uses partisan elections or the nonpartisan primary and election method, is the first city "election" the primary, or is it the general election?
Answer: 

That's not absolutely clear, but the North Carolina election law, in G.S. 163-291 and 163-294, does distinguish between the "primary" and the "election," using the word "election" to refer only to the general election. That usage suggests that the 90-day deadline applies to the general election and not to the preceding primaries.

If a single ordinance makes a number of amendments to the charter and the council chooses to allow citizens to vote on the amendments, can the amendments be separated on the ballot?
Answer: 
For example, if the ordinance changes the size of the council and also gives the mayor the right to vote on all issues, can there be a separate referendum on each of those changes?
Probably not. The statute specifies that the purpose of the referendum is to submit "the ordinance to a vote," which suggests that the vote must be on the ordinance as a whole. If the council wishes to have a referendum on each separate proposed change, it must adopt a separate ordinance for each change.
G.S. 160A-102 and G.S. 163-287 have conflicting references about which board publishes a notice of referendum (council or board of elections, respectively). Which board publishes the notice?
Answer: 

The council. G.S. 160A-102 is a more specific statute than G.S. 163-287, and for that reason it should prevail. The reference in G.S. 160A-102 to the other statute is intended to indicate the timing and content of the notice.

If the council chooses to make an ordinance amending the charter subject to a referendum, may it change its mind and cancel the referendum?
Answer: 

Probably, although the matter is not entirely clear. The courts have permitted repeal of other sorts of ordinances or resolutions before they become effective, and there is nothing in the charter change statute that suggests a different rule for ordinances that amend the city's charter. If a council were to repeal a referendum resolution, however, it would certainly need to publish a new notice of passage of the ordinance itself, since the statute gives citizens 30 days from that notice to circulate petitions to force a referendum.

What about the opposite? May a council adopt the ordinance without calling for a referendum and then decide to do so a few days or weeks later?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-102 specifically states that the resolution calling the referendum is to be "adopted at the same time" as the ordinance.

If the council has not made an ordinance subject to a referendum and citizens wish to force a referendum on the ordinance, are there any procedural requirements other than submitting the petition within the period specified in the statute?
Answer: 

Yes. G.S. 163-218 requires that sponsors of any petition calling for an election or referendum register notice of their petition with the appropriate county board of elections. This should be done before any signatures are collected.

What content is required of the petition?
Answer: 
>G.S. 160A-103 requires only that the petition "identify the ordinance to be submitted to a vote."
What information needs to be included on the petition about each person signing it?
Answer: 

Petitions to force a referendum on an ordinance adopted by the council are regulated by G.S. 160A-103, and that statute does not specify any information beyond each voter's signature. G.S. 160A-104, however, which deals with citizen-initiated amendment proposals, does specify that the petition contain each person's signature and resident address, and it would be prudent for a petition seeking to force a referendum to contain the same information. The address is necessary in order for the board of elections to be able to verify the validity of a signature.

Does a person need to be a registered voter in the city in order to sign such a petition?
Answer: 

Yes. The statute requires a specific number of "qualified voters of the city" in order to force a referendum, and to be qualified to vote a person must be a resident of the city and registered to vote.

How many signatures are required?
Answer: 

The smaller number of either (1) ten percent of those persons registered to vote in city elections or (2) 5,000 persons.

G.S. 160A-103 specifies that a petition seeking to force a referendum must be filed with the city clerk no later than 30 days after the city publishes the notice that the ordinance has been adopted. May the city extend the 30-day period?
Answer: 

Probably not. The city would essentially be amending the statute, and that is something that cities are not permitted to do.

An ordinance is controversial. Citizens circulate petitions after the ordinance is adopted but before the notice of adoption is published and immediately obtain enough signatures. May the petition be presented to the clerk before the notice is published?
Answer: 
There doesn't seem to be any bar to such an early submission.
Who is responsible for submitting a petition to the local board of elections for verification, the sponsors of the petition or the city clerk?
Answer: 
The statute does not specify, but it makes more sense for the city clerk to have that responsibility. Otherwise, the need to obtain verification would shorten the 30 days that the statute gives citizens for obtaining a sufficient number of signatures by whatever number of days it took the board of elections to conduct the verification process.
Can the sponsors of the petition specify the date on which the referendum will be held?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-103 directs that it is the council that submits the ordinance to the voters, once a sufficient petition has been received, and that indicates that the council fixes the date of the referendum.

How much discretion does the council have in fixing that date?
Answer: 

G.S. 160A-103 directs that the referendum be held not less than 60 days after the petition is submitted to the city clerk, and not more than 120 days after the petition is submitted. The council should consult with the appropriate board of elections to make sure the date does not conflict with other scheduled elections or referendums.

What board is responsible for publishing notice of the election when citizens force a referendum by petition?
Answer: 

Oddly, the statute does not provide an answer to that question. Because the statute does not specify that the council is to publish this particular notice, perhaps the board of elections is responsible for doing so.

Must citizen-initiated petitions be filed with the board of elections?
Answer: 

Yes. G.S. 163-218 applies to petitions for any sort of election or referendum.

What's the effect of registering a petition with the board of elections?
Answer: 

Under G.S. 163-219, the petition sponsors must obtain their required number of signatures within one year after registering with the board of elections. If they do not, the petition is void and they must start again.

What content is required for such a petition?
Answer: 

G.S. 160A-104 directs that the petition describe the proposed amendments briefly and completely and with reference to the pertinent provision of G.S. 160A-101. This is the same language that is included in G.S. 160A-102, specifying the content of the resolution of intent for an amendment proposal that is initiated by the city council. The forms portion of this web page includes model language that meets the statutory requirement for each of the proposals possible under G.S. 160A-101.

May petitions propose alternative amendments?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-104 specifically prohibits proposing changes in the alternative.

May petitions propose a number of different, but consistent, amendments? For example, could a single petition propose increasing the size of council, changing council terms, and moving to a different election method?
Answer: 

Yes. G.S. 160A-104 permits proposing a "integrated set of amendments."

What information needs to be included on the petition about each person signing it?
Answer: 

G.S. 160A-104 specifies that the petition contain each person's signature and resident address. The address is necessary in order for the board of elections to be able to verify the validity of a signature. The model petition form included in another part of this website also asks that each signer's name be printed, which also facilitates confirming the validity of the signature.

Does a person need to be a registered voter in the city in order to sign such a petition?
Answer: 

Yes. The statute requires a specific number of "qualified voters of the city" in order to force a referendum, and to be qualified to vote a person must be a resident of the city and registered to vote.

How many signatures are required?
Answer: 

The same number needed for a petition to force a referendum on a council-adopted ordinance: the smaller of either (1) ten percent of those persons registered to vote in city elections or (2) 5,000 persons.

May a person who has signed a petition withdraw his or her signature?
Answer: 

Probably, at least up to the time that the petition has been submitted to the city clerk and perhaps up until the time the council adopts a resolution setting the date for the referendum. The statute is silent on withdrawing a signature, but the courts have permitted persons to withdraw their signatures from other sorts of petitions, up until the petition is acted upon, and there is no reason to believe the same rule would not apply to this kind of petition.

Who is responsible for submitting a petition to the local board of elections for verification, the sponsors of the petition or the city clerk?
Answer: 

The statute does not specify, and it might be prudent for the petition sponsors to submit it to the election board in order to assure that they have a sufficient number of valid signatures. Once the signatures are confirmed, the elections board could return it to the sponsors, who could then submit it to the city.

Can the sponsors of the petition specify the date on which the referendum will be held?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-104 directs that it is the council that calls the special election, once a sufficient petition has been received, and that indicates that the council fixes the date.

How much discretion does the council have in fixing that date?
Answer: 

G.S. 160A-104 directs that the referendum be held not less than 60 days after the petition is submitted to the city, and not more than 120 days after the petition is submitted. The council should consult with the appropriate board of elections to make sure the date does not conflict with other scheduled elections or referendums.

Which board – the council or the board of elections – is responsible for publishing notice of the election when the citizens initiate charter amendments by petition?
Answer: 
G.S. 160A-104 specifies that the council is to give the notice required under G.S. 163-287.
If citizens propose a charter amendment by petition, who is responsible for the ballot language – the petition sponsors or the city council?
Answer: 

The council. G.S. 160A-104 directs that the council call the special election on the proposed charter amendments, and that includes setting the ballot language. There is not a great deal of liberty in writing the ballot language; G.S. 160A-105 sets out the appropriate language, and the forms included in another part of this web page include appropriate ballot language.

If a petition submits an integrated set of amendments, such as the example included in Question 52, may the council split the proposals and call for a referendum on each separate part of the set of amendments?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-104 specifies that the referendum is to be "on the question of adopting the charter amendments proposed" in the petition, and the italicized language indicates that the ballot shall include only a single question.

If the voters approve the amendments proposed in the petition, does the council have any discretion as to whether to then adopt the charter amendments?
Answer: 

No. G.S. 160A-104 directs that if a majority of votes are in favor of the proposal, the council "shall adopt an ordinance" amending the charter accordingly. The council's responsibility is ministerial.

What if a council is interested in proposing an amendment and voters are interested in proposing a different amendment on the same subject. Do the statutes deal with competing proposals?
Answer: 

Somewhat, although the statutory provisions are incomplete and perhaps ambiguous.

The fullest treatment is in G.S. 160A-104, which deals with voter-initiated proposals. It prohibits voters from filing a petition with the city in three situations:

  1. When the council has initiated its own proposal and has published the notice of a public hearing on that proposal. This bar continues until the council has either adopted or rejected an ordinance on its proposal or, if the council takes no action, until the time for taking action has passed. (Recall that the council must act within 60 days after the public hearing.)
  2. When the council has adopted an ordinance amending the charter – whether the result of a council-initiated proposal or a citizen-initiated proposal. The section prohibits filing a petition within 18 months following the effective date of the ordinance.
  3. When the voters in a referendum have rejected proposed charter amendments – whether proposed by the council or by citizens. The section prohibits filing a petition for 18 months after the date of the referendum.

It should be stressed that the statute specifies that these prohibitions apply only to petitions that propose amendments on the same subject matter as the council proceeding, or adopted ordinance, or defeated referendum. There is a parallel but much less complete treatment in G.S. 160A-102, which deals with council-initiated proposals. That section bars council action to begin the amendment process once the city has received a petition proposing charter amendments, but it says nothing about limits on council action when an earlier ordinance has become effective or when the voters have defeated a proposal in a referendum. The provision in G.S. 160A-102 also does not limit its reach to amendments on the same subject matter, but perhaps such a limitation should be implied. It is hard to understand why receipt of a petition to increase council size or change council terms should bar a council-initiated proposal to change to the council-manager system or to give the mayor the right to vote on all issues.

What about competing petitions? What if one group of citizens submits a petition to move from plurality to partisan elections and another group submits one to move from plurality to nonpartisan election and runoff?
Answer: 

The statutes don't deal with this situation, which is probably rare. The sensible course would seem to be for the council to act on the petition that is received first. If that petition leads to a successful amendment of the charter, the second petition has probably become moot. This solution is comparable to that developed by the courts when there are competing proposals for cities to annex the same territory.

May the council delay the effective date of a charter amendment for an extended period, for example for two or three years?
Answer: 

Probably, but only for changes that the council has itself initiated. The General Assembly sometimes delays the effective date of charter amendments that it enacts, and this statute is intended to give the council authority that is comparable to the General Assembly's. There may be good reasons for such a delay. For example, the change might be to increase the size of the council in a city that elects its council members to nonstaggered four-year terms, and the next election might be three years away. Although it would be possible to elect the additional member or members for two-year terms in an interim election, the city might prefer to avoid the expense of that otherwise unnecessary election.

What should be the effective date for a change in the method of administration, moving from the mayor-council system to the council-manager system?
Answer: 

Although a change from mayor-council to council-manager might be thought to become effective immediately upon adoption of the ordinance, there are a couple of considerations that counsel some delay.

First, if there is any controversy about the change, there is the possibility of a petition forcing a vote on the ordinance. In order to avoid the confusion that might accompany the threat or receipt of such a petition, it might be appropriate to delay the effective date until at least the end of the thirty-day period available for presenting such a petition, with the condition that if a petition is presented the ordinance will not become effective until the voters have approved the ordinance. The second paragraph of G.S. 160A-102 provides that "the council may, but shall not be required to unless a referendum petition is received . . . make any ordinance adopted pursuant to this section effective only if approved by a vote of the people." The italicized language seems to require a delayed effective date if a referendum petition is received within the thirty-day period.

Second, even if there is no controversy, it might take some time before the council actually appoints its first manager. (In some cities moving to the council-manager system, the council already has appointed an "administrator," and the council usually names that person as the first manager and does so immediately.) Therefore it is wise to make the change effective only upon the first manager's taking office. Otherwise the council will have to name an interim manager to exercise the manager's appointment and supervision powers; once the manager system becomes effective, the council can no longer exercise these powers itself.

If council terms are changed from two years to four years, can the ordinance provide that the existing members' terms are extended from two to four years?
Answer: 
Probably not. Rather those terms should expire in the normal manner, and the four-year terms should be applied to the persons elected at the first election taking place after the effective date of the ordinance.
If the council moves to four-year staggered terms, how should those be implemented?
Answer: 

That usually depends on whether the city uses at-large or district elections. If the city uses at large elections, the usual method is as follows: Assume a council with five members. At the first election after the effective date, those three (or two) members receiving the highest number of votes receive four-year terms, and the remaining members receive two-year terms. At the second election, two years later, those two-year seats are now open again, but this time the successful candidates receive four-year terms.

If the city uses some kind of district elections, the council usually prefers to designate which districts initially receive temporary two-year terms and which receive four-year terms; the designation usually is determined by lot or coin flip. (Any other method might be open to legal challenge.)

If the change is to reduce the length of terms, does that shorten the terms of existing council members?
Answer: 

Probably not. That would be a fairly drastic step, and it might be expected that the statute would specifically give that power to the council or voters if it were intended. Rather, a change from four-year to two-year terms would have to be implemented as the four-year terms expired.

What about a reduction in the size of council? Does that end the terms of existing council members?
Answer: 
Again, probably not. A reduction in council size should, if necessary, be staged over time as well, so that existing terms are not affected.
If the ordinance increases the size of the council, does the increase take effect only at the next election, or may the council fill the new seat or seats by appointment in the interim?
Answer: 

The statute does not say specifically, but probably the change becomes effective only at the election. In G.S. 160A-109 the statute makes special reference to changes being enacted at least 90 days before the first election held under the changes, and that is implicit evidence that the change becomes effective with the election and not before.

G.S. 160A-107 states that a change remains for at least 2 years "after the beginning of the term of office of the officers elected thereunder." What if the change is to 4-year staggered terms? Does the 2-year period run from the first or second election?
Answer: 
It runs from the first election. Even those who receive two-year terms in that election are receiving those terms under the amended charter, and therefore the first election meets the statutory condition.
When does the two-year period begin when the change is the form of administration? There are no officers to be elected under such a change.
Answer: 

The two years presumably run from the time the change becomes effective.

If the council adopts an ordinance, which is then overturned in a referendum, is the council barred for two years from trying again?
Answer: 

No. First, the two-year bar only applies to charter amendments that go into effect. Furthermore, as noted in Question 64, G.S. 160A-104 contains an explicit limitation on citizens being able to try again with an initiative petition that is defeated in the referendum, while there is no comparable limitation on council initiatives under G.S. 160A-102.

Does the two-year limitation on making changes apply to the General Assembly?
Answer: 

No. The General Assembly may amend a city's charter at any time and in any way that it wishes to.