The highly paid DC City Council and governance and voting systems
Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post beat me to writing about this issue in "Is D.C. overgoverned? Or undergoverned?," which was touched off by a study, City Councils in Philadelphia and Other Major Cities, released by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
By both measures, the D.C. Council does pretty darn well. Members' average salary of $130,538 is good enough for second place among the 15 big cities surveyed; only Los Angeles pays its members more, $178,000 on average. And the District far outstrips the competition on legislative spending - more than $32 per capita.
But are District residents getting the good government they're paying handsomely for?
Concern is hard to find in the John A. Wilson Building, where council members are quick to point out that the District isn't just another city like Pittsburgh or Phoenix; it assumes functions managed by states and counties in other places.
Yes DC Council Members have state and local legislative responsibilities, which means that the City Council is more than a strict local government body, so getting paid more isn't totally ridiculous. I think that it would have been better to compare DC legislative responsibilities and pay to County Councils in the Maryland and Virginia region. Arlington is much smaller than DC, but each of the other county jurisdictions is larger in terms of both population and size.
Interestingly, where I think there is a real dearth in the literature is a more detailed discussion of local government structures, not only for the legislature, but for more specifics about the different ways that local governments have supported citizen participation through bodies or other organizational forms, with either more or less ability to weigh in on issues before government, and with or without some financial heft.
NYC has Community Boards. DC has Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. After the San Fernando Valley secession movement in Los Angeles, they created Neighborhood Councils. Seattle has neighborhood commissions that are corporatist, with representatives from community organizations. Atlanta has Neighborhood Planning Units to address zoning issues, while Minneapolis' Neighborhood Revitalization Program creates a kind of neighborhood development organization structure, with money behind it, and a training infrastructure.
Then there are capacity development programs such as neighborhood support programs--Seattle's is probably (at least it used to be) the least tainted by politics in that the programs aren't used primarily as a political machine to maintain the Mayor in office. There is the Massachusetts Citizens Planner Training program for planning and zoning commissioners. And Dallas has the Urban Information Library, a special collection of periodicals, books, reports and other resources for interested citizens concerned with local civic affairs.
I'd like to see a good report on this broader issue, not one strictly focused on City Councils, because the issues are broader than that. (DC has other problems with the Home Rule Charter, which is heavily weighted in favor of the Mayor.)
Note that traveling on the day of the 2008 Presidential election, I discovered that Pierce County, Washington practices a form of proportional voting, called ranked choice voting. I thought that it was overturned afterwards, but I am not sure of the status, as it is still listed as the voting method on the County Elections website.
Ranked choice voting graphic, Pierce County Washington. Printed with the permission of Fred Matamoros, Tacoma News-Tribune.
For local elections, not national elections, there is only one election, not a primary and a general election. What happens is that in the local election, all candidates are on the ballot, and people rank their choices, but they only rank their top three choices.
-- Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County
There's a lot to be said for simplifying the election process in DC, although it wouldn't really save costs, because DC still needs to have a general election every two years for the Congressional Delegate. If those terms were for four years, instead of two, we could save money in such a change. But probably the general election could be run with fewer polling stations, compared to the primary and local election, and this would save some money.
Labels: change-innovation-transformation, civic engagement, democracy, municipal government, participatory democracy and empowered participation, progressive urban political agenda, voting and referendums