Thursday, July 14, 2011

Editorial: Switch to districts for better city governance

In an unusually short piece, the unnamed Courier editor pumps the idea of setting up city districts that would elect resident representatives to Council. I've had to think this over for a bit. 

I launched this as an idea balloon a year and a half ago, in reporting the results of the last city election.  I'm sure it's been mentioned elsewhere before and since. For me it came out of what could be interpreted as voter dissatisfaction with the candidate list, and this year's roster isn't any more inspiring. What the editor left out, despite a couple of grafs of vague exposition, is exactly what problem he's trying to solve and how council districts would help.

So I'll just riff on that. In terms of a problem to solve, I see tedious repetition in the types of people who seem exercised to run for Council: good ol' boys, wannabe good ol' boys, and axe-grinders. We sorely need a higher proportion of people who are known and respected in the community and who can think clearly about the greater good. The trick is motivating such people to get involved in a 60-hour-a-week job (if you're doing it right) that gets you pretty much nothing but constant irritation and five hundred clams a month.

There is no reason to think that council districting is a bad idea per se, despite the protestations of certain anonymous cranks who see all sorts of dark shenanigans in just about anything. On the plus side, it would certainly bring new faces to the table, since a given district would have to send someone from within its boundaries. It would very likely make it simpler and cheaper to run for Council, and the elected would likely identify much more closely with a smaller group of voters. It would also give the office of the Mayor more gravitas and a clearer role in Council politics.

On the downside, it would lower the bar for axe-grinders. In the last election, which drew participation by 13,093 voters, it took about 6,500 votes to gain a Council seat. Assuming a roughly even distribution of voters city-wide (and that's a stretch), you could divide by six for a given district: 2,182 voters, or about 1,100 votes to win a two-way race. On that scale, very small numbers of single-issue voters in a coordinated campaign could swing some serious mojo.

That considered, I'm inclined to think that districting could be a good thing. So what are the practical considerations in getting there?

The first decision is how many districts. Are a couple of thousand voters per district too few, or too many? Say we keep it at six seats. The next is how to do the transition. Council  has four-year terms so only half face election every other year. Would we set it up so we wipe the slate clean and start fresh? Would we require that half the districts only elect for two years the first time around? Might we even go to six-year terms and only elect two each round? Would we keep the Mayor as a two-year seat, or go longer to provide more continuity befitting the new gravitas?

There will be many more niggly details to solve, with no professional manager on hand at the moment. Does anyone think this Council could handle a project like this? Don't everyone raise your hands at once, now. Okay, so we go to the initiative process. Which group of axe-grinders would you want to write the initiative?

Let's not flap our arms too much over something so theoretical. Any system can work great for us if we elect the right people. That's always the trick.

See, the right people aren't showing up. Why should they? The hours are long, the pay insignificant, and most people think you're there to line your pockets from the public treasury. To do a term on Council you need an independent income, an astronomically high threshold of frustration, and a hide like a rhino. There are a thousand other ways for a civic-minded person to contribute that generate way more satisfaction and way less flak. Consequently it attracts a higher than average proportion of chest-puffers and rascals.

If we're out to solve the problem of better representation, we have to start by making the profession respectable. Better pay wouldn't hurt, either.