PERSPECTIVE:

City Council: It’s Not How Many Members, It’s....

BY BOB KAUFMAN
       It’s been proposed by the League of Women Voters that Baltimore City downsize its City Council, changing to single representatives from each of nine districts.
       I have no strong feelings about the size of Baltimore’s City Council. Any financial savings which could accrue to the city by paying for fewer council persons could be largely canceled out by the necessity of having larger City Council staffs.
       What is of far greater importance is the method by which our public officials are chosen, and the relative control Joan and John Q. Public have over them once in office.
       Over the years, the City Wide Coalition, acting as an amateur think tank, has put together some modest proposals to democratize city government and empower the people.

  1. All public officials, including City Council, should be elected through city-wide proportional representation elections.
           Why city-wide? Because to assume that the most significant difference between voters is what section of town they may reside in at any given time is simply preposterous. (Although it does tend to encourage territorial parochialism - and isolation.)
           Differences between voters include ethnicity, culture, religion, gender, gender preference, education--and most of all--employment and class.
           Any particular party or candidate for City Council may have enough significant popular support throughout our city to get elected and truly represent his/her geographically dissimilar constituents--but may not garner enough votes in any single isolated district.
           Why proportional representation? Proportional representation is a far more democratic method of election process than our “winner takes all” system. It allows for far more accurate representation and makes it harder for a small oligarchy to control. It is used quite widely in European countries as well as several U.S. jurisdictions.
           In a 19-member city council election, each voter would get either 19 votes period, or as many votes as there are candidates. in descending order of preference. A voter might prefer candidate “A” for mayor or City Council, but feels that candidate “B” has a better chance. The voter could pick them both as either 1st or 2nd choice.

  2. The City Council already elects its vice-president. For all the same reasons it should elect its own President. Such a City Council president would be harder for entrenched financial interests to control and would relate more democratically to his/her City Council constituency. Also, if the president became too obnoxious, he or she could be easily recalled and replaced.

  3. We should abolish the mayor’s office and a much-more-democratic City Council should hire a city manager. This would eliminate most of the squabbles between executive and legislative branches of government--squabbles that make it hard for pro-people legislation to be enacted or enforced and easy for special financial interests to control our city in order to maximize their profits.

  4. The City Council should be more of a full-time job, somewhat like European and other parliaments.

  5. Baltimoreans should have the ability to recall any official they have elected, as well as over-ride City Hall through the initiative and referendum processes. (It’s probably the only way our car insurance co-op will ever overcome a disingenuous mayor and City Council.)

  6. We’ve got to make it easier for the citizens to vote.
           The most egregious violation of citizenship rights are the state-by-state (mostly southern states) denial of the right of felons to vote. This prohibition was originally brought by those same lovely ex-slave holders--after Reconstruction--who gave us the poll-tax and the grandfather clause for the express purpose of stealing the vote from blacks and poor whites. Some state legislators actually put together laundry-lists of which crimes are more likely to be committed by whites, and called them “misdemeanors” (including fighting and murder) and those crimes they thought were more likely to be committed by blacks--including chicken thievery!--they called “felonies.” Baltimore could easily eliminate such discrimination in city elections while it pressures the state to do likewise.
           Prior to 1919, immigrants who resided in Baltimore but were not yet naturalized U.S. citizens voted in Baltimore City elections. They should again.
           The voting age should be lowered to 16 and integrated into the school system.
           We have the technology to eliminate the need to register in order to vote. Citizens should not have to go through any more bureaucratic hassle to vote than to charge a purchase on a MasterCard. This, alone, should save Baltimore a couple million dollars a year.

  7. If the Democrats or Republicans or Greens wish to hold a primary election, let them--but at their own expense.
           Doing away with municipal primaries would not only save the city a bundle, but would make it easier for folks to vote once, instead of having to vote twice. It would also be more democratic (meaning harder for the fat cats to fix/buy elections).
           How would it work? Each candidate, who has raised a minimum number of $5 or $10 donations, would be given a uniform amount of city money to campaign with. Public radio and TV could give them equal time. Much of this could be paid for by taxing candidates or parties which opt out of election reform and raise big bucks from the big bucks people. On the ballot--in mixed order (so no candidate is numero uno in all voting districts)--each candidate will be identified by name and political identification.
       This is what I would call real electoral reform.

 


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This story was published on August 30, 2000.