Sunday, February 8, 2009

Should At-Large Council Representation Be Abolished?

By Judith Brown

On Inauguration Day I attended the community meeting at the Russell Library, where Middletown citizens exchanged ideas about the future of our town. It was a great conversation with lots of excellent specific suggestions on different topics. Yet they all had something in common and several people said it: that in order for these great ideas to become reality, Middletown government would have to be more responsive, accountable, and transparent than it is now.

So how do we work together to make this happen? I suggested at the community meeting that we should change the way we elect our city council members. At present all council members are elected at-large. Consequently, it is difficult to hold individual council members accountable for particular decisions that have a diverse impact on different parts of town. Basically, representation that is solely at-large results in less accountable and less transparent government.

Secretary of State, Susan Bysiewicz, who was present, responded that in recent decades a number of city councils across the nation have been compelled by the courts to modify their exclusively at-large representation systems and to replace them either with members who represent specific districts or with a mixture of representatives of specific districts and of the city at-large. One such case involves Port Chester, NY, right on Connecticut’s border. Other nearby towns ordered to change their city councils were Hempstead, on Long Island, and New Rochelle, in Westchester County.

As we head into the next municipal elections, with candidates announcing their intention to run for city council or mayor, let's bring up this idea with all candidates. If they believe in representative and accountable government, government that is in keeping with the intent of the law, they should be in favor of this change. There is much to be said in favor of a city council that includes both district and at-large representation so that both city-wide and district perspectives are represented.

And while we are at it, how about changing council members' terms of office from two years to four years? The election of all council candidates every two years is not only more expensive for taxpayers and candidates, it allows candidates to avoid responsibility. The big problems we face in Middletown, like those in the state and the nation, are too complex to solve in two years. With such short terms, candidates can justly say that they didn't have the time to address the important issues. Let's give them the time and hold them responsible for the decisions they make.


Westlake Bill said...

Both those are very good ideas. Yes, a four year term would help the council men and women be more long term visionary. Also, all areas of this great city, like Westlake Drive residence about 15% of the city's population, would be better represented.

Ron Klattenberg said...

I want to thank Judith Brown for attending the Community Conversations held at Russell Library. The event, turnout and exchange of ideas was excellent. The Committee is now working on the final report and we hope to have it completed very soon. There are still many suggestions that need to be sorted and collated.

In response to the two suggestions in this posting, I would like to offer the following: The suggestion to have council members represent specific geographical areas in the city has been informally discussed many times by the council. Each time the topic comes up, the greatest fear is that many areas may not have interested candidates willing to run for office. Finding qualified people is sometimes difficult. This is not unique to Middletown, but prevalent in communities throughout CT and nationally. In my opinion, for this system to work it takes greater public interest in running for elected offices than is presently the case. It takes enormous amounts of time and requires citizen donations to run a successful campaign. Today, many residents are too worried about their jobs and job security to allow the time needed to run for elected office. In my opinion, the at-large form of representation works for Middletown because we are not so
large as to make specific resident concerns out of reach for any council member. It is the council’s obligation to be responsive regardless where an issue or concern is raised. The public also has an obligation to voice concerns to the Mayor, appropriate committees, taskforces or council members. You should feel comfortable engaging those members of the council that will be responsive to your particular issue(s).

The idea of 4 year terms for council and Mayor was advocated and supported by me during the Charter Revision Commission last year. I agree that 2 year terms are counterproductive. Too much time is spent running for office and not enough dealing with critical city issues. When a Mayor takes office he/she inherits the former Mayor’s budget and there is limited time making substantive changes, especially if the mayoral candidate has not served previously. As a candidate for mayor I believe having served on the council is an excellent learning experience and reduces the learning curve. I even advocated for term limits. Unfortunately, the Charter Revision Commission gave every little support for this charter change. Maybe a future Charter Revision Commission will reconsider this matter.

Catherine said...

I think the idea of changing the council from at-large to district representation is an excellent idea. This is our No. 1 problem in Middletown.

When I think about how we have had virtually no turnaround on the common council in the past 15 years, I feel we are merely treading in place. The same, tired faces sit on the same committees, carrying on the same tired dialogue meeting after meeting, year after year. Why not try something new? We are dying for new ideas.

I disagree that we wouldn’t be able to find people to run. People aren’t running not because they have “busy lives”; people don’t run because no one invites them to get involved. No one reaches out. People aren’t getting involved because there is little opportunity to get involved. There is no way into civic involvement. And it appears that the council likes things just the way they are (see previous post). “Got a good idea? Sorry, we’ll need to squash that.”

Another problem is that there is really only a single party here in town. Of about 22,000 registered voters in town, there are 10,000 Democrats, 8,500 Independents, and 3,500 Republicans. Since independent voters aren’t formally organized into a single group, if you can make it onto the Democratic ticket and win once, you’re good to go for about 40 years… (maybe 60 if you take your vitamins).

Under these circumstances, I have come to the sad conclusion that the only way we can get a true leader onto the council or most committees is purely by accident.

Judith, thanks for this topic. I wish you would run for council.

FYI: term limits were not included in the Charter Revision not because the revision committee didn’t support it but because if a position is an elected one, people can vote that person out of office to end his incumbency. See case law.

Vijay Pinch said...

Judith Brown's suggestions are excellent. Apropos of Councilman Klattenberg's point about the difficulty of finding interested candidates to run: perhaps one reason it's hard to get people interested is that the system today requires one to work through one of the two major parties. A district or ward system would favor -- or at the very least, increase the role of -- neighborhood organizations in the selection of candidates. This would open the Council to those who for whatever reason don't wish to choose between the two parties -- or who simply don't like what they see in party politics in general. The greater involvement of neighborhood organizations in politics would certainly make the Council more responsive to and reflective of the views of the people of Middletown. And insofar as the elected councilperson regularly reported back to her/his neighborhood group (you can bet that the neighborhood group would insist on this), it would make local government more transparent and probably attract more young people into politics.

Anonymous said...

Would Billy Bobcat look after my "interests" out here in Maromas? I might rather take my chances with Willie Weasel from Westlake than Billy or Ronnie Rifleman.

Charley Chipmunk