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.