December 6, 2021

Time for longer terms?

Municipalities mull expanding from 2 to 4 years

Photos by Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cortlandville Highway Superintendent Larry Drach, right, watches a crew pave Friday behind the Cortlandville Highway Department office in the Polkville section of Cortlandville. Municipalities like Cortlandville have been weighing extending term lengths for official positions from two to four years.

The question of more demanding accountability versus longer time stability has been one municipalities such as Cortland and Cortlandville are pondering whether to extend term lengths from to four years from two.

The Cortlandville Town Board voted last week to have a public hearing at a later date to hear comments on extending the term lengths of town supervisor, highway superintendent and town clerk.

The move follows actions by the Cortland Common Council to discuss the measure at the June 15 meeting on extending the term lengths of the councilpersons from two years to four years along with the mayor, said Mayor Brian Tobin.

Voters approved four-year term lengths for trustees and mayor in the village of Homer and legislators in the Cortland County Legislature in 2019 that were enacted in 2020.

“Given that local elections tend not to be very competitive, the idea is that elected officials can spend more time on the job before running for re-election,” said Robert Spitzer, a distinguished service professor in SUNY Cortland’s political science department.

The argument for going to four-year terms is that elected officials can focus more on projects and getting work done without having to think about campaigning every other year, he said.

Likewise, keeping term lengths at two years means a greater emphasis on accountability for elected officials and showing constituents that they are doing what they said they would do while campaigning.

It also forces them to be more available and accessible to the public, Spitzer said.

The change, though, for smaller municipalities like Cortlandville or Cortland to fouryear term lengths isn’t as large compared to big cities. because voter turnout in local elections in Cortland and Cortlandville tend to be low, he said.

“Its overall impact is probably pretty small because most local offices and office holders don’t face fierce political headwinds,” he said.

If the change meets public approval, the Common Council in Cortland and Town Board in Cortlandville will vote on whether to adopt four-year term lengths and have them put on the ballot for the November general election, officials in the respective municipalities said.

“I’d like the council to put it on the ballot for the general public to vote,” Tobin said.

He said his support for the change will help make work more efficient for Common Council members and the mayor as realistically, with most projects, it takes about two years to get them accomplished.

He noted, for example, grant application work for projects such as the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, can take up to three years for the city to fill out before receiving funding.

“Two-year terms don’t really lend for elected officials to do long-term planning,” Tobin said.