Archived Opinion

N.C. counties have gotten more democratic

By Lee Shelton

After the primary election results were in, I offered a commentary on county government and the implications of the election’s outcome. That column elicited several responses, and led me to explore the history and role of county government in North Carolina.

County government in pre-Revolutionary North Carolina was an important component of government. Justices of the Peace, as a body, administered the affairs of the county. Upon the end of the Revolutionary War, the county system continued with the governor, with recommendations from the General Assembly, appointing the justices. The counties were principally extensions of the state government, and the state government controlled who was in control of the counties, and conversely, those who controlled the counties played a significant role in who was elected in state government. The county itself was a single political unit; there were no townships. The citizens of the respective counties had no control over the courts or no direct control over county government.

In 1868, North Carolina rewrote its Constitution and established the county commission system, with members of the county commission elected by those eligible to vote. As a number of residents had lost their right to vote because they “had engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof ...,” this vote, by the public- at-large, favored the newly enfranchised blacks and those who had remained loyal to the Union.

However, those who had been disenfranchised quickly took back control after the end of Reconstruction and federal occupation, leading to another rewrite of the state Constitution in 1875. The county commissions were not abolished; however, the members of the county commissions were to be selected (again) by the justices of the peace rather than be elected by the public at-large. Thus, appointments of the justices of the peace essentially provided control over the county governments.

This created a lot of “circular” — quid pro quo — politics among the state government and the county governments. Each county was now divided into townships, and the voters of each township elected two justices of the peace and a clerk who served as the governing body of the township. Under the county commissioners’ supervision, the township board was responsible for roads and bridges and the assessment of taxes. Each township had a constable and a school committee.

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In 1895, the right for the public to elect county commissioners was restored in most counties. In 1905, the people in all the counties in North Carolina regained control over the election of the board of commissioners. Thus, this right for the public to elect its county government should not be taken for granted.

And today ...

The role and responsibilities of the county commission has evolved over time, subject to state statutes and other legislative actions, as well as key appellate court cases. The Supreme Court of North Carolina defined the county government as “... a body politic and corporate.” A body politic is a civil division of the state for purposes of government administration. A body corporate is a legal entity. A county is thus a legal entity or corporation with a public function.

Consequently, this has been codified in the North Carolina General Statutes. Chapter 153A-11, “Corporate Powers” states that: “The inhabitants of each county are a body politic and corporate...”; Chapter 153A-12, “Exercise of Corporate Power,” places the authority and responsibility with the elected Board of Commissioners (not the county manager; under Chapter 153A-81, “The Board of Commissioners may by resolution adopt or discontinue the county-manager plan.” The county manager is to be an extension of and from the elected board of commissioners, and only derives powers from the board).

The board of commissioners has broad powers, again, including the ability to adopt or discontinue the county-manager plan. Under the county-manager plan, “the Manager is the chief administrator of county government.” The county manager, contrary to what some seem to believe, is not the chief executive of the county. The county manager is the board’s chief administrative officer responsible to the board. Chapter 153A-39 of the North Carolina General Statutes requires that a chairperson (and vice chairperson) be elected. They are typically elected by the commissioners, determining who will lead the board.

By law and convention, the chairperson is now considered the chief executive officer, whereas, again, the county manager is the chief administrative officer (akin to a chief operating officer in a corporation, which is what a county legally is).

Thus, the public at-large comprise the stakeholders of the corporation (the county). They vote for a board to run the corporation. The board in turn selects its leader(s) by electing a chairperson, who, de facto, is the chief executive officer, and a vice chairperson. The board then employs the key managers, including the county manager, who is to serve at the pleasure of the board under state law. Again, there is no obligation to have a county-manager form of government.

It is entirely appropriate — and responsible — for the board and its presiding officer to get involved in matters pertaining to the well-being and governance of the county to the extent that they believe it is necessary. The premise that the board should only deal with general policy and defer to a county manager is simply not correct. The board, and the presiding officer who was elected by the majority of the sitting board, have the duty to get involved. That is “the job.” Thus, those who take a “hands-off approach” arguably are not perhaps doing theirs.

Circumstances, needs, viewpoints, desires, etc., will change and evolve over time. Accordingly, the board is elected at intervals in order for the public to express its wishes. Thus, the governance of the county is to change to meet the new opportunities and challenges. In this day and age nothing remains static, no matter how much some may want it to.

The franchise to vote in elections is the cornerstone of our democracy. There is an important election in November. The county needs to hear from you. Vote for the future of your county.

(Lee Shelton lives in Maggie Valley and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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