Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, February 04, 2011

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.

There is a lot of concern that in a more economically constrained society, city councils are too large, compared to the days when cities tended to have much greater population. Here and there, cities have reduced the size of their councils. Baltimore did this a few years ago. The lesson is that more councilmembers doesn't always equate to better government.

But the report raised attention in DC because of the fact that DC City Council Members are the second highest paid "local" municipal government legislators in the U.S. From the Post article:

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.

In the DC region, Prince George's County Council people make the most, about $96,000 and Montgomery County Council Members make around $94,000. I think they don't get very much support for staff, just a couple people. Part time members of the Arlington County Board make $49,000. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors representatives get $75,000. In each case, the Chairman gets more.

However, just because DC City Council has more expanded responsibilities and has more staff doesn't mean that they necessarily do a better job. I find DC Council's research capacity to be pretty narrow and limited, at least they aren't generating great research and reports about innovative municipal government and how to achieve it. We certainly aren't creating many best practice examples in municipal government nationally. I don't think DC is considered a particularly innovative municipal government.

But it is true that the Pew study, which compared only city governments, ends up being somewhat skewed in terms of the DC side of the study, because of the difference in responsibilities.

DeBonis' column opines about "overgovernment" and "undergovernment." With regard to the former, he makes a great point that didn't occur to me, that because the City Council is (so) small (although it scares me to think of it as getting bigger), it's a lot easier to pass legislation. That you only need 7 votes for a majority, for legislation to pass, while in a state legislature, you need not only for legislation to pass two houses, not one, you also need a lot more votes for legislation to pass in both houses. (Christopher and I discussed this in a comment thread about this op-ed from the New York Times, "Build a Bigger House.")

So DC passes far more legislation in an average year than a comparable state--and I am not always sure we are better off for it.

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.

The City of Montreal is actually organized into boroughs or arrondisements in addition to the overall City Council. The Mayor of Ville de Marie is also the mayor of the City, but each borough has its own elected Mayor and Council, and there is a greater diversity of party control throughout the city. (The Plateau-Mont Royal is considered the most "left".) The City has overall responsibility for certain functions, and each borough has control of certain other municipal functions.

The Montreal system is discussed in two blog entries from Mez Dispenser, a Toronto blog, "Borough Councils: One way to give power back to neighbourhoods" and "Should Toronto fight for the right to party" about how the political party system works in Montreal, which currently has three major municipal parties

(Fundamentally DC only has one party, the Democrats, even though there are organized political parties called the Republican Party and the DC Statehood-Green Party, vying for seats in local elections. In the past, these parties have had a representative or two on City Council.)

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.)

With regard to DC probably the Montreal way is not possible here, and while it scares me to suggest it, probably we ought to add at least one councilmember slot to each ward, so that there would be 16 Ward Councilmembers, two for each ward, each serving a 4 year term, elected on a staggered basis, so that each election, one ward councilmember would be up for election.

Probably 4 more at-large positions should be added as well, because the Council's ward heavy structure of representatives makes ward issues too prominent and parochial as it is, and adding another representative in each ward would further this sometimes sorry fact rather than improve it.

That would make for 24 Councilmembers + the Chair, up from 12 Councilmembers now. That would mean it would be harder to pass legislation, as you'd need at least 13 votes.

At the same time, the salaries should be lowered, maybe even cut in half, and probably the jobs should be made part-time in reality and by salary, with more a more defined (and reduced legislative schedule), and reduced staff.

By reducing the staff, this would reduce the meddling that can occur through constituent service. OTOH, constituent service by legislators is a form of the checks and balances that our governing system promotes, and it's a check against disconnected executive branch government.

So this proposal calls for more legislators but less time legislating. I am not sure what that would mean for office staff. I know that the state legislators in Maryland don't get much money for staff, and they are part time positions.

On the other hand, the one danger in this proposal is making the Council even more narrow minded because DC is so heavily Democratic, and there is something to be said for having more political competition within the local political structure, in order to liven things up and improve the capacity for improvement. Social Darwinism, or the extension of capitalist principles to civil society, argues that more competition makes for better results.

In Greater Greater Washington, Topher Matthews suggested in "DC primaries should be scrapped," that the primary election voting method should be converted to instant runoff voting, a form of proportional voting that allows for support of a greater variety of candidates and party labels.

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
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.
080925_ranked_choice_ballot, Pierce County Washington
In each round of voting calculation, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed to the second and third choice candidates still remaining. See "Voters changing their minds on ranked-choice" from the Tacoma News-Tribune. The story explains how the system works as does this webpage from the County Elections office:

-- Ranked Choice Voting in Pierce County
-- More info on 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.

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