Friday, February 13, 2009

More Thoughts on District Representation on the Council

Earlier this week, The Eye published a commentary by Middletown resident Judith Brown suggesting that the citizens of Middletown would be better served by Council members who represented specific districts of the city.

The piece elicited some thoughtful responses, and one or two which were less so. One thoughtful response came from mayoral candidate, and Council member Ron Klattenberg. Here is Judith's response to those responses. We welcome fair and thoughtful commentary on this, and anything we publish in the Middletown Eye.

Democatic Government and Citizen Participation: Mixing At-Large and District Representation in the Common Council
Judith C. Brown

Last week, I posted an item in favor of 4-year Common Council seats and of changing some seats to district respresentation. These would be necessary first steps toward making Middletown’s Common Council more democratic and responsive. I was very pleased that several people wrote in favor of these proposals and that Mayoral Candidate Ron Klattenberg entered the discussion. But while I appreciated that Mr. Klattenberg is in favor of 4-year terms, I was disappointed that he opposes district representation, primarily because he thinks there aren’t enough qualified or sufficiently interested people in Middletown to run for Council. This is blaming the victims for what appears to him to be public apathy. The blame should go instead to the obstacles that our local government places on running for office.

The major hurdle is the at-large electoral system, which requires more money and more access to political connections than running from a smaller district, where a candidate is known and knows the issues facing voters. These are the main reasons why people interested in running for local office either do not run or are forced, for all practical purposes, to run as part of a party slate which provides funding and the political networks for slate candidates, but which increases the barriers to entry for all other candidates. In effect, it is the at-large electoral system that results in slates whose members are preselected by a small handful of people who run the Democratic and Republican Town Committees. Basically, we, the voters, have given over our democratic rights to a handful of people who preselect our candidates. As a registered Democrat I say this with great sadness because our local system of government is no longer truly democratic. Turning 6 or 9 of our 12 council seats into district seats would enable many more citizens with an interest in civic affairs to run for office and, whether Democrats, Republicans, or some other affiliation, they would have a better chance of doing so successfully without having to depend on a small coterie of people to whom they are beholden for the support needed to run for local office and for reelection.

Replacing most at-large Council seats with district seats would not only increase the pool of candidates and the variety of independent viewpoints on the Council, it would provide a form of apprenticeship for the wider, at-large positions, for which candidates now exlusively compete. Also, Council members representing districts would be more responsive and accountable to their constituents than the at-large representation we have now because they are closer to their constituents and more familiar with their needs.

In support of a less democratic, entirely at-large city-council, Mr. Klattenberg cites the obligation of all council members to be responsive to the public regardless of where an issue is raised and the obligation of the public to bring issues of concern to the attention of the Council or other officials. In his opinion, the at-large form of representation works. Like many other citizens, I understand that responsive government is not a government that always agrees with my point of view. But as some of us know from our experience in dealing with our local officials, they are less responsive and less well-informed about issues that affect specific constituencies than they should be. This is why despite the public’s interest in local issues, some of our citizens give up voicing their concerns to Middletown officials. It is not a lack of responsibility on the part of the public that drives public behavior; it is frustration with the lack of responsiveness and transparency on the part of local government.

This is a town with a great university, a major hospital, and many large and small businesses and cultural institutions with intelligent, qualified, and public-minded citizens. I am confident that if we remove the obstacles to more responsive and more transparent government, Middletown citizens will cheerfully and willingly step up to running for office, bringing issues to the attention of officials, and addressing the challenges of our troubled times. First steps in that direction are turning 6 or 9 of our Common Council seats into district seats and turning all the seats into 4-year terms.

10 comments:

Vijay Pinch said...

Thanks again for keeping this important issue before us. I agree with everything said here. It's also the case, I think (and someone will, I am sure, correct me if I'm wrong - after all, this is the internet), that creating neighborhood-based voting districts would remove the need for minority-party representation in those districts. I don't have the chapter and verse of the various state and local charters in front of me, but I have been led to understand that at-large voting is what requires municipalities to guarantee a certain percentage of seats to the minority party. This rule, whatever its origins, has had the effect of allowing the minority party in Middletown (the Republican Party) to coast, and in the process wither on the vine. After all, why bother increasing the membership and seeking better results at the polls when you know you have a lock on a safe percentage of seats? In my view, this has been bad for the Republican Party in Middletown. Getting rid of the minority-party rule may, in the short term, lead to the decimation of the Republican Party on the Common Council and School Board etc., but in the long term it would, I think, have the effect of producing a healthier Republican Party. And, more importantly, it would encourage the participation of local neighborhood associations in local politics.

I'd be curious to hear more about the minority party representation rule from those more knowledgeable about the history of its implementation in Middletown. Anyone?

Anonymous said...

Creating the voting districts would be a significant challenge. For example, Village District concerns should be the concern of all the people not just the citizens that are residents of that area. What exactly are the obstacles to transparency that are obfuscating effective government under the existing at-large system? They should be throttled. Consensus is possible, not to mention desirable, under both of these systems. Isn't it?

David Bauer said...

A very sad dynamic in local political races is that for every one vote cast by a caring and informed elector, there are at least ten votes being cast with little or no knowledge of who they are voting for.

I feel that running for the Common Council is more of a "Popularity Contest" than when I ran for Home Room Representative in the 7th Grade.

What are the major problems that Middletown is facing? Would Ward representation really help solve them?

The public was absent from introducing topics like this when the Charter Revision Committee met last year and that is where they most belong.

There is a local election in Middletown this fall. Will anyone see that these issues are discussed in the campaign this year?

Westlake Bill said...

Thanks Dave for all your help and inteerest in the past. I sat next to you at one of the Army Reserve Meetings at Mercy High. Middletown Politicians need to work together to be a better team. Also, please get your GOP team involved helping The Friends Of Westlake Drive have a nicer community. Talk with Phil Pessina and Ron Klattenberg. They promised to work as a team to help us not ask Cromwell to buy us Middletown!

jbrown said...

I agree with Dave Bauer that running for Common Council should be more than a “Popularity Contest,” which is why I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for the many times he has made the right, but unpopular decisions.

Dave asks the right questions: what are the major problems facing Middletown and would ward representation help solve them? In my opinion, partial representation by district and partial representation at large would help. But this is a conversation worth having as part of the electoral season and I would very much welcome such a conversation among Middletown citizens and their candidates.

As to the alleged failure of the public to introduce the topics of district representation and four-year council terms when the Charter Revision Committee met, Dave may not know that these topics were, indeed, introduced. My husband, Shannon Brown, did so at the first meeting of the Committee, when he spoke as a member of the public. The Committee, however, did not follow up on these ideas, judging from the limited Charter changes that were subsequently presented to the voters by the Committee.

Judith Brown

Vijay Pinch said...

Anonymous @ 6:22 asks: 'What exactly are the obstacles to transparency that are obfuscating effective government under the existing at-large system?'

Judith Brown stated the general point quite well in her second paragraph. '[I]t is the at-large electoral system that results in slates whose members are preselected by a small handful of people who run the Democratic and Republican Town Committees. Basically, we, the voters, have given over our democratic rights to a handful of people who preselect our candidates.'

One might then ask: How are the slates chosen? What are the principles employed? If the party choices are based, at least in part, on some sort of geographic calculus, then why not institutionalize this calculus in the form of discrete neighborhood voting districts or wards? This way the voters in a neighborhood district would be presented with a real choice when it came to deciding who can best represent their interests. And if the party slates are *not* chosen with an eye to geographic representation, then why not?

The more basic point, of course, is that when a candidate knows that s/he must rely on party support above all else to get elected, s/he will be less concerned with the issues facing her/his constituents. This leads to decisions being made for less than transparent reasons. And this is more likely when the voting is done at large, because the tendency is for the party to have the resources necessary for city-wide races.

As for Dave Bauer's concern about elections being 'popularity contests' with too many voters casting votes in ignorance: I agree. Creating neighborhood districts would go a long way toward addressing both problems. People are more likely to pay attention to the issues in an election when those issues are framed in terms of the impact they would have on discrete neighborhoods, and therefore they would be less likely to treat the local election as a 'popularity contest'.

Anonymous said...

Would the exiting districts, which are based on ?, remain intact if the system were reworked? I am also concerned about issues that pit one neighborhood against another.

Anonymous said...

I thank Judith, Vijay, Ron, David and others for initiating and publicly debating such an important issue. I am writing to support the creation of district seats for all of the reasons well articulated by others. It seems that one of the main concerns with this system is a worry that there would be insufficient candidates to run for these seats. This is a very valid concern. However, as Judith pointed out in her most recent posting, assuming that there will be no candidates is a case of blaming the victim. If the districts were sufficiently large, say having four districts for the entire city (e.g., by combining two elementary school districts together), it should not be too difficult to generate good candidates from each district. These seats would both spur public participation in the political process and help remind the council that Middletown has diverse, geographically specific needs.

One issue that seems to be recurrent throughout the discussion has been a concern that the current role of political parties is stifling citizen participation in Middletown politics. Parties serve a number of very important purposes including recruiting and training candidates for public office, developing policy platforms, articulating voter preferences, etc. However, if the parties’ recruiting techniques and/or their candidate selection methods become exclusive and insular our politics may become undemocratic, as several of the posts have suggested.

One obvious solution to this problem, adopted in many American cities especially in the West, would be to make common council elections nonpartisan. Council members would have partisan affiliations, but those affiliations would not be listed on the ballot. Candidate names would be listed alphabetically and voters would select their top 12 (or however many seats are up for election) candidates. Thus, parties would still able to serve their important democratic functions, but the barriers to entry for independent and third party candidates would be significantly reduced. Furthermore, voters would be forced to become more educated about individual candidates since it would be much more difficult to vote based on party affiliation alone. Such an electoral system would also transform the role of the majority and minority leaders in the Council since the usual outcome of this kind of electoral system is a pluralization of the elected representatives’ parties.

Alternatively, as an intermediate possibility, the council seats might remain partisan, but the district seats could be nonpartisan. In either case, parties would still serve very important functions and would still be heavily responsible for candidate selection, but they would no longer hold that role exclusively.

David Bauer said...

I enjoyed the comments about non-partisan elections for local Councils, but I have trouble envisioning such an election in Middletown.

I ran for Common Council as a Petitioning Candidate in 2001 and I only got ~800 votes. Sadly, if you want to survive prison, you need to join a gang - and if you want to survive politics, you need to join a Party.

My last thought - be careful what you ask for. The district boundaries that have been opined - what about our Congressional and State Legislative boundaries? Have you ever looked carefully at the Gerrymander we have? Middletown keeps faithfully re-electing the same people that gave us our districts - they will probably be in place when they are re-drawn for 2011. Go visit the Registrar's Office and check out the mess. Until the voters of Middletown do something different, why should you expect the "Wards" of Middletown to have any more sensible assignment?

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