Reflections On The Obstacles To Running For Office Under The Commission Form Of Government

I have long been concerned over the problem of motivating people to run for office.  The problem is not unique to Saratoga Springs.  It seems increasingly difficult to get people to run for elected office on all levels of government.  I expect that the increasingly abusive nature of public discourse is contributing to the problem.  It seems citizens feel entirely within their rights to express their displeasure with the decisions of elected officials with open rudeness and contempt.  Who among us wants to be the subject of such abuse?  There is the related issue that elected officials are held in low regard.  The very word politician is something of an epithet.  Nowhere was the contempt for politics more evident than at the Charter Commission’s meetings.  Many members of the Commission repeatedly asserted that they were going to take the politics out of government as though that were a good thing let alone possible.  To some of us, the conflict that they refer to as politics is rooted in the fact that many decisions made by our government have winners and losers.   Unfortunately, in an age of campaign consultants, the conflict over public policy has often taken on such ugly excesses as to leave the public alienated from their own democracy.

For me the most compelling question is how do we get good people to run for office?

Having To Run A Department Is A Significant Impedimant For Some People Thinking of Running Locally

The Charter Review Commission has identified a real problem with the commission form of government which is that it adds a significant disincentive for people considering running for office.   The idea of becoming the executive for one of the city’s departments is downright intimidating to some people.  Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who I believe has done a superb job heading Public Safety, has described to me the grueling time required by the position and the stress that comes with running an institution that the citizens of this city rely on.

I, in fact, was prepared to support a change in government that would make it easier for people to run.  The health of our democracy requires finding citizens prepared to take on the burden of elected office. 

The question for me then became how can we make it easier for more people to run for office and to structure any new model in a way that is as responsive to the citizens as possible.

While going to a council that has only legislative duties is a step in the right direction, in the real world I believe this will  have only a modest impact on the candidate pool.  According to the proposed charter the new legislators will run “at large.”  In other words, they will have to run citywide.  To me, this represents a very large hurdle to get over.  The traditional way to run is to knock on doors in order to make personal contact with voters and to do mailings and use other media.  Knocking on doors is, to say the least, hugely time consuming and increasingly difficult to do in Saratoga Springs. The proliferation of apartments and condos and large estates make large numbers of voters impossible to meet .  Raising money to do mailings is also a problem.  Many people who would make good legislators find it understandably hard to ask others for money.  I know that personally, I find it more than awkward.  It also raises the importance of money in general.  People may recall that the Chamber of Commerce helped set up a PAC which offered money to the candidates that the Chamber and its allies felt would represent their interests.  In the last campaign at least one of the candidates for Mayor raised over $100,000.00 for the campaign.  So while ending the administrative responsibilities for elected officials would be an improvement, the Charter Review Commission’s approach still leaves the power of money in our elections very much a continuing problem.

With that in mind, I urged the Charter Commission to have candidates represent districts within the city.  Unfortunately, this raised that nasty word, “ward.”  Between Tammany Hall and Mayor Daley of Chicago, the word seems to generate a visceral reaction among many people, the members of the Charter Commission among them. 

In the course of writing this blog I have met many fine people from all across this city who have been involved in local conflicts regarding development issues in their neighborhoods.  I have observed that in the best tradition of democracy, leaders have arisen for whom their neighbors developed trust and respect.   It seemed pretty clear to me that it would be far easier to get these people to consider running for office if the voters they had to reach out to lived in their area as neighbors.

This would greatly reduce both the cost in media and the time required to reach out to the people they needed to vote for them.

Consider the related factor.  The dependence of money to buy media for a citywide race goes in the opposite direction.  It allows the people with deep pockets and private agendas greater influence.

There is also the added advantage of a candidate being connected to their constituents.  People are far more likely to know the person representing them on the city council and feel more comfortable approaching them with their concerns.

With respect to the Charter Commission, while I think eliminating the responsibility to run a department will eliminate a significant barrier, I do not share their promotion of the idea that this will bring out the numbers of people to run that they expect.

They Cannot Restrain Themselves

One of my key problems with the Charter Commission is that in their zeal to pass the charter, rather than thoughtfully craft their arguments, they go into selling mode.  The legitimate issue of the barrier of being a Commissioner is simply not enough for them. 

So they claim that changing the form of government will bring more women into government.  To begin with, this city already has a strong record of electing women to office.  During my time in this city we have had three women mayors.  We have a woman who is the Commissioner of Finance and Remigia Foy served in that office for several terms. We have also had many women run for office but who did not win including female candidates for Public Safety and Accounts.

I also find it at least modestly sexist to think that women will not run or cannot be elected as Commissioners of Public Safety or Public Works.  Sarah Berger ran in a primary against Chris Mathiesen to be Public Safety Commissioner in the last election.  In addition, Eileen Finneran has run the department as the fulltime Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety in two administrations.  

I would concede that given the preponderance of male contractors, there is an argument that could be made about the difficulty of finding women to run for Public Works.  I still think that there are women out there quite capable of running that department.

This is the kind of campaign that spin doctors promote.  Repeat enough that there will be more women involved under the new charter to give it that air of being progressive and attract the women’s vote.

Ironically, over 85% of the city managers in the country are men. 

Below are links to three articles from professional publications including one from the ICMA (International City Managers Association) about the difficulty women experience in the world of city managers.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: