This is a rather long piece. The length is necessitated by the gravity of my accusation against an institution which I believe to have played, up to now, a vital role in our democracy. I deplore cheap attacks and to understand what the League has done, it requires understanding the history of the League and the specifics of what has occurred. I have included at the bottom a copy of the League’s explanation as to what they have done.
The National League’s Standards For Fairness
[This excerpt is from the National’s narrative on how to arrive at an organizational position. Note that the process is not exclusive to the members of the board but is supposed to involve the membership]
“The first step is vital: STUDY. League members across the country must look at all sides of an issue, study the facts, the ramifications of all approaches to that issue, alternative solutions, the impacts on people, places and things, the costs and benefits. Only after studying the issue do League members come together in their own local Leagues to discuss that issue at a meeting to arrive at the “consensus” of their League on the issue.
The results of all local Leagues discussing the issue are compiled to determine the consensus of the League as a whole. CONSENSUS is not a vote – rather, consensus is a mutual agreement of League members arrived at through civil discourse, the hallmark of the League of Women Voters.
In the process of discussing the issue, League members must turn the issue upside down, sideways, backwards and forwards. Because of our nature, training, upbringing, experience and hearing others’ ideas, League members will see an issue differently. In fact we cherish the fact that we bring different perspectives on issues. Because the process of coming to consensus is an amalgam of members’ thoughts, ideas and ways of looking at the facts, members attending the consensus meeting must dig deeply into the issue. That is why we cannot typically pose a consensus question in the frame of “Do you support the NPV compact approach to electing the President?” Consensus questions are designed to spark a discourse about the issue akin to the discussion we would expect policymakers to have when they deliberate the issue. Consensus questions are not black and white, yes or no questions. There is no right or wrong answer to a consensus.”
How The Local League Studied The Forms Of Local Government And What They Decided
Concerned about the organizational effectiveness of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors and other municipalities the local League initiated a “study” in May of 2015. Consistent with the standards of its national organization it labored over this work for two years and issued its position in April of 2017. Note how modest their finding is. A mere two paragraphs, it reflected the caution that is consistent with both its history and the nature of the process. Here is the text:
“The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County believes that it is important to have a clear separation of powers, and checks and balances in County Government and therefore we support having an elected County Executive. Additional reasons for supporting a County Executive are that because the County Executive would be elected county-wide the Executive would be focused on the needs of the County as a whole; and because the term of office would be longer than the current one-year term of the Chair of the Board of Supervisors continuity and long range planning would be enhanced.
The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County believes that Cities in this County should separate their administrative functions from their legislative functions by having a City Council that makes policy and laws and either an elected executive or an appointed administrator to carry out administrative functions. The League supports this separation of functions in order to have a strong centralized administration, to have clear lines of responsibility and to eliminate waste.”
The Local League Pushes Through Endorsement At Board Meeting
As noted in the excerpt from the National League, decisions are supposed to be the result of consensus which is supposed to involve the membership. No notice was sent out to the membership of the local League advising them that the board planned to take action on endorsing the proposed city charter.
In a release to the media, the board of the local League defended their action by asserting that they had studied the charter to determine that it was consistent with their previously adopted position, to wit, that it would separate the legislative duties from the administrative duties.
This piece of legal sophistry is painfully thin. The proposed charter involves far more than the separation of powers. I will be going through the issues of the charter in a series of related posts but here are just a few. The proposed charter changes the terms of city council members from two to four years and staggers the terms. It creates a mayor who no longer has any administrative duties but whose salary is roughly triple the current mayor’s salary. As of the date at which the League made its decision there had been no financial analysis of the cost of the new form of government although members of the charter commission have made claims that it will save many hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are more but these are just some of the substantial issues involved.
Most conspicuous was the League board’s failure to invite representatives who opposed the proposed charter to their endorsement meeting. The only person with an in depth knowledge of the document was Barbara Thomas who is one of the rotating League presidents, who is on the board, and who is also on the Charter Review Commission. This seems rather out of keeping with the National’s admonish, “members… must look at all sides of an issue.”
So using the terms from the national, would anyone argue that at this single meeting of the board our League “…study[ied] the facts, the ramifications of all approaches to that issue, alternative solutions, the impacts on people, places and things, the costs and benefits…” Or that the “League members [had turned] the issue upside down, sideways, backwards and forwards.”
It is also worth noting that as a member of the charter review commission, Ms. Thomas’ decision not to recuse herself from the vote is quite troubling. When asked by the Saratogian about this, Ms. Thomas responded that she “did not see it as a conflict.” It seems to me that people of good faith could argue over this issue. The thing that I used to admire about the League was that it would go the extra mile on issues like this to avoid even the appearance of a problem. Their main concern was insuring their credibility in the eyes of a public grown cynical about manipulation.
I will be following up this post by going through the charter identifying what I believe to be the critical policy issues outside of whether a reader prefers the commission form or prefers the council/city manager form. When you vote in November, notwithstanding the League’s myopic approach, you will decide on some very important changes to our government beyond these two models.
One can only hope that the board of the League will see the folly of what they have done and take action to acknowledge the error and to assure the public that they will again adhere to the policies that have made them such an important resource for the community.
Finally, I would take exception with the League’s original position that the legislative players in government should be structurally separated from the executive players. Most democracies in the world have parliamentary systems. These include Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. When a political party wins a majority of seats, the prime minister selects individual members of parliament to serve as the heads of the country’s key institutions. There are positions like minister of health, minister of transportation, minister of housing, etc. Many, myself among them, think that this is a more democratic model and less prone to the kind of executive excess and gridlock that our own country seems to suffer from.
[The League’s statement to its members]