Charter Commission: Protecting Politicians From The Mob?

It has been clear from the beginning that the Charter Commission (CC) was going to recommend that the “Commission” form of government that currently exists in Saratoga Springs should be replaced.  Of the fifteen members of the commission, eleven were appointed by Mayor Yepsen and, as was her prerogative, she selected people who shared her antipathy to the Commission form. 

 While her appointments shared her desire for change, they have taken their mission very seriously and each has shown that they come at their job with gravity, respect, and independence. While I very much disagree with some of their decisions  that should not be interpreted as challenging their character. 

One of my differences with them was their decision at their January 12th meeting to construct a city council with four year staggered terms.  Here is a link to the video.  It is very much worth watching at least a little of this video to get a feeling for the members of this commission.  Mr. Turner shows patience and good humor in running a very fair meeting.  I think the readers of this blog will be impressed with the thoughtfulness of their deliberations.

 Respecting the CC is not the same as agreeing with it, however. 

At this meeting the members of the CC reached a consensus that the terms for the members of the City Council should be extended from two years to four years.  They also agreed that the terms should be staggered.

The commission members  argued that extending and staggering the terms would allow for greater continuity. They noted that running every two years was onerous.  They cited the time required to campaign and particularly noted the demands of raising money. 

I am dubious about the concern over the need for greater continuity .  Having observed our Council for decades there seems to have been relatively little dramatic turnover. The one exception that I can think of was when four Republican officeholders were defeated by  Democrats in 2005.

I  understand their argument about the burden of running for office every two years.  To me, though, this concern has to be balanced against  what I think is the more important  problem of the damage that could be inflicted on the city if an irresponsible officeholder could continue in office for four years instead of just two. Staggered terms would also mean that if a council majority was problematic voters would  have to wade through two election cycles before being able to shift the majority to officeholders who better reflected the public’s will.

Insulating Those In Power From The Public

There is another underlying factor about the commission’s configuration of a new council which I find troubling.

There is a strong tradition in American politics of trying wherever possible to insulate elected officials from the public at large.  This desire to limit public participation is often related to a skeptical view of the ability of voters to make rational choices.

In a recent post on this blog Rick Fenton wrote the following in support of the commission’s plan to design a council with four year staggered terms::

“They [staggered terms] reduce the power of voting blocs, special interest groups or political action committees to stage a takeover of city government at a single election

This is a rather odd concern.  How have orderly elections in a democracy morphed into Mr. Fenton’s fear of coups?  While I have been disheartened by the results of many of our two year cycle elections, I have never attributed the results to some sort of cabal by a small group of people in the city who were able to hoodwink a majority of voters into putting them into power.  It always seemed instead  that the majority of my fellow voters  sometimes did not share my priorities.

Mr. Fenton also  worries that the “mob”, aroused over a single issue, would foolishly cause a “drastic shift in city leadership. He writes:

“And they [staggered terms] reduce the possibility that voter wrath over a single controversial issue will cause a drastic shift in city leadership.

First it is important to note that in four years a sitting majority can pass a lot more than one bad piece of legislation but whether the public was outraged by one or fifty council actions voters would still have to wait at least four years instead of two under the charter commission’s proposal to change the makeup of a Council they felt was not reflecting their wishes. For me, even one bad vote could be enough to merit replacing a council.  Had the City Council voted to support a full scale casino, for instance, I would have felt the public fully justified in voting out that council.

Charter Commission chair Robert Turner turned to the Federalist Papers in support of inhibiting the ability of voters to easily alter the majority of a council by instituting four year staggered terms.  In the spirit of Thomas Hobbes, he quoted the Papers on the need to “…guard against the confusion of a multitude.” 

Alexander Hamilton, one of the Federalist Papers’ three authors, was famously no friend of the “mob” or the common people. In his view “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom determine right” and he looked to “the few…..the rich and the well born…to check the unsteadiness of the [mass of the people].”

In 1824 Thomas Jefferson observed  that “Men…are naturally divided into two parties.  Those who fear and distrust the people….and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them…and consider them the most honest and safe depository of the public interest”. Unlike Hamilton, Jefferson believed that “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”  I fully share this sentiment when I think about the people of our city.

While I do not believe in the infallibility of the voters, my confidence in the people they elect is equally jaundiced. Insulated from  the “mob” for four years, the judgment of officeholders is vulnerable to a lobbying industry whose money, influence, and social status works continually to subvert the public good, even in our little city.  In fact I think there is a direct correlation between the length of time between elections and the influence of special interests.  Politicians seem far more interested in the public’s concerns the closer they are to an election thus the appeal for me of two year rather than four year terms.

As valuable as stability is, for me responsiveness to the voters should be the priority.

 

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6 thoughts on “Charter Commission: Protecting Politicians From The Mob?”

  1. Good post. I too expected the CC to reject the current commissioner set-up – but I consider it a mild upset that they opted for the Council-Manager form, rather than strong Mayor scenario… The latter would have been an automatic ‘no’ from me. I will look at this seriously…

    I definitely want to see a budget for all of this, though… And… I think 4 year terms are fine, desirable even. Staggering? I think not. I happen to like these periodic ‘overthrows’ of the Council… Perhaps we’ll see something along those lines this November. Hmmmmm….

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    1. Re: years. Twp years really isn’t long enough. Every council member I have talked to says the same thing: you get the first year to do something, and spend the next year campaigning again. Four years is too long however. So I suggest three as a compromise!

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  2. For all their credentials and civility this charter commission seems to be strikingly out of touch with voters who continually express frustration at the lack of access and responsiveness of government. Their proposal for four year staggered terms for a council and a hired city manager who will be difficult and expensive to fire seems to be sending our city government on the road to being much less accountable to voters than our current system. For all its flaws the commission form does give “power to the people” not only to regularly choose their legislature but uniquely to also be able to directly weigh in on how the departments are being run.
    BTW this charter commission’s lack of faith in the competency of the electorate was also reflected in their discussion of when to hold a referendum on their proposals. Commission members, for instance, repeatedly characterized we voters as incapable of multi-tasking–that is unable to focus on charter change issues at the same time as choosing city council members. One has to wonder if they fear an ignorant electorate or maybe one that is too smart. After all a similar proposal for a city manager was resoundingly defeated just a few years ago. Could this commission be calculating that the only way they can win is to schedule an election when fewer voters will show up this time?

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    1. Re: “Could this commission be calculating that the only way they can win is to schedule an election when fewer voters will show up this time?”

      “Boom”.

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  3. Who is this outrageous Fenton character? Fearful of coups? Denigrator of the good people, whom he calls the “mob?” I know one by that name, but find no trace in him of such nefarious beliefs.

    Speculation about the motives behind appointments can distract people from the real issues. As I understand it, the mayor was most concerned about finding a good mix of age, gender, and neighborhood. She didn’t ask how her appointees felt about changing the form of government. Many of the cynical among us assumed that the mayor picked charter commission members who would push for a strong mayor form, so she could slide right into a more powerful position with a big salary. That suspicion should have been put to rest last week when the commission voted 14-0 to support a council-manager form, in which the job of mayor will be pretty close to what we have now. People should have confidence in the independence of commission members.

    The two quotes you cite aren’t mine, and don’t relate to any historic Saratoga event. As I said, I extracted them from a recent article about a proposal to move to staggered terms in another city. They reflect general concerns of those engaged in the long nationwide discussion about terms of office, and are just some of the reasons regularly and routinely offered in support of four-year staggered terms.

    The Model City Charter, regularly updated and published by the National Civic League, recommends 4-year staggered terms for council members to avoid dramatic changes in council composition at each election. The Model cites the Form of Government Survey of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). According to the 2011 survey, council members in 63% of cities reporting had 4-year terms, and in 85% of cities had staggered terms.

    Here are other reasons cited for 4-year terms in recent news articles from other states:

    With 2-year terms, council members spend the first year being legislators and the second year concentrating on getting re-elected.
    4-year terms send a message of stability and accountability to businesses who need reassurance that policies and processes won’t change in the blink of an eye.

    “When you’re there for two, it seems the bureaucracy is less responsive than if you’re there for four.”

    “If there’s a four-year term, there’s times a decision comes up that will have an impact for years down the line. If you’re in a two-year term, you start to think, ‘How’s that going to affect my reelection?’ You’re able to make better business decisions.”

    “Considering that service on the vast majority of city councils represents a labor of love – nobody is doing this work to get rich, and the position rarely offers a stepping stone toward a full-time career in politics – two years simply isn’t long enough to learn how to do the job effectively. And it’s not as if the job is getting any easier or less complex; all of the easy problems already have been solved.”

    “Stretching the terms of office would promote more continuity, political stability and efficiency in city government.”
    “People recognize that the shorter terms are the right environment for unnecessary political pressure.”

    For many, it seems to come down to this: are we so afraid that people who run for office are scoundrels that the focus in designing government structure should be making it easy to remove them from office, even at the expense of their effectiveness?

    On the other hand, there are plenty of articles that emphasize the other perspective – that shorter terms make officials more accountable, and keep them in closer touch with the people they represent.

    It’s true that dramatic council turnover has happened rarely in the past. But as you point out, it has happened. And that definitely has a dramatic impact on the continuity of government policy. The concern about the potential damage caused by an irresponsible office holder in office for 4 years instead of 2 seems hypothetical and unlikely. Expanding the council to 7 members, as proposed, would reduce the impact of any one member – or even 3. And with staggered terms, there would still be an election every 2 years, allowing voters to send a strong message that no alert politician would ignore.

    Our current charter is 100 years old. It served us well for a long time. But the city has grown and changed, and the role of city government is much more demanding and complex than it was in 1915. I’m more concerned that council members have the time to focus on pursuing important initiatives, those they campaigned on and won a seat for, than the fear that they would join together to oppose the will of the public. On the casino question, could any council have opposed the will of such an energized public? In this town, is the council ever insulated from the public will?

    The charter commission hasn’t made any final decisions. They’re still listening. Everyone should stay engaged!

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