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.