Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Size matters?

One of the more unfortunate ideas to be recently advanced in Metro Council is that of amending the Metro Charter to cut the size of council simply because few other cities have a council this size.

Those who have made the case for a smaller council outside the council tend to refer to its hilarity rather than to explain carefully how decreasing the size of the legislative body won't just lead to more streamlined rubber-stamping of the strong executive (who will actually have to spend less time lobbying for votes) and to more abbreviated levels of comedy. All you have to do is look at the current Keystone crop of at-Larges and their pet projects and their obsequiousness to Hizzoner to have a good idea of how a smaller council would function. It would be 24 at-Larges who are just as jealous and territorial as the current crop. Changing the size does not guarantee a change in the dynamic. It just means less messy democracy.

Nonetheless, the council member sponsoring this bill, Emily Evans, is broadcasting herself as a champion of "the public", and she plans for a petition drive if the bill does not pass. I won't sign her petition until she convinces me that it is in my best interest to do so.

On top of that, she's engaged in email blast brawls with former CM John Summers, who opposes significant shrinkage.

I--like many of you--was not privy to this debate (the thread was forwarded to me by Mike Peden). I have been unwilling to give Summers or Evans passes on their mistakes in the past, so I can understand why they would not include me in their grandstanding. Why they might not include you is something you might ponder.

First, former CM John Summers writes:

It’s simple math, you make the Council districts larger, you increase the number of people one Council member has to represent, YOU get less representation.   You have more neighborhoods, farther apart lumped into fewer districts.

Larger districts will make campaign contributions more important.   That increases the influence of developers who are the primary donors that fund Council campaigns.   That means it will be harder for neighborhood friendly candidates to get elected.

I rarely disagree with Councilwoman Evans on issues, but on this one I very much disagree.   She believes to convince voters to change term limits, she has to offer them fewer districts.   And sbe believes longer terms will make the Council more independent of the mayor.  I served under two administrations (Fulton and Boner) without term limits and it made little difference.   Both of those Councils were dominated by the Mayor ....

In the abstract fewer Council members sounds good to many people. Everyone wanted to get rid of Luyde Wallace. But you’ll eliminate as many good Council members as you will not so good.

This is a bad idea. It’s bad for neighborhoods. I hope you will e-mail the Council and express your opposition to reducing the size of the Council.

I doubt Ludye Wallace would like to read that one. As much as I don't care for Mr. Summers, I'd judge his argument against Ms. Evans a strong one. I even agree with him about Mr. Wallace.

Next up, CM Emily Evans responds from the affluent 37205 zip. I did not see Mr. Summers listed among those in her blast audience, so I'm not entirely sure he got her message. Curious:

John has really jumped the gun on this one...and left out a few very important facts.

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First of all, John and I have never discussed this issue in any meaningful and in depth way so there is no way he can credibly tell you what I do or do not believe about the size of council and term limits. So, let me make a few points:

  1. This amendment is designed to increase the term limit from 2 to 3. I strongly believe that term limits are detrimental to this city and its long term prosperity. Term limits makes it near impossible to address long term and difficult issues like mass transit and poverty. Why? because you need more than 8 years of work to solve these things. A total of 24 members. That's right, 60% of the council is term limited in 2015. Any issue, I don't care which one, will start at zero in September 2015 with a new council and a new Mayor. How can that be a good thing? PS: I am not running no matter what.
  2. This Council action does nothing but put the question to the voters. John and anyone else on this list is welcome to vote no and convince others to do so.
  3. This amendment was approved (a first I believe) by the Charter Revision Commission 5-1.  That Commission includes Dewey Branstetter, son of charter author Cecil Branstetter, long time Metro Law head, Jim Murphy, Hal Hardin, Susan Short Jones and Lorinda McLaughlin largely because they too recognized the damage such an onerous term limit does.
  4. I am asking for a deferral tonight so I have time to get in front of community groups and neighborhood associations to discuss why I think it is important to let the voters consider this question.

Had John contacted me before sending the email below I am certain he would have produced a more thoughtful argument. So, instead of sending me your objections - which at this point are premature -could you please help me schedule a time to visit your group, Neighborhood Association, etc and make a presentation about this proposed amendment? I think I have a good case and would appreciate the courtesy of making it. If you disagree, so be it. But at least give me the chance John wishes to prevent.

It is worth noting that both Mr. Summers and Ms. Evans included a recently deceased neighborhood legend in their email blasts, Germantown's Ernest Campbell. I guess when one is really invested in a charter squabble, sensitivity is a casualty.

I would be curious to see how Ms. Evans herself can explain to associations how cutting their representation on Metro Council actually creates more democratic opportunities for them to influence council members from the grassroots.

It only makes sense to accept the argument that democratically organized groups would have stronger influence on a smaller council if one also accepts the argument that the organized money thrown at CMs by the wealthy would also have greater influence on a smaller council. A smaller council would be a wash for associations from that angle.

If neighborhood associations want greater influence with a smaller council, they are going to have to work on stronger relationships with like-minded associations. Otherwise, their influence will shrink with a smaller council. It stands to reason. It is the simplest explanation, barring the rationalizations of the smaller-is-better crowd. A charter change would mean even more groundwork for neighborhood organizers to task.

Meanwhile, there is still that nagging trump card: the Mayor would have an easier time executing his or her will over a smaller council than s/he does now. In the absence of a "neighborhoods Mayor" that is not good. I don't buy this bill of goods.

UPDATE: Over at her Facebook page, CM Evans is defending her support in the face of criticism from constituents. One comment that questioned whether she should be wasting her time on a charter amendment instead of representing her district stood out to me:

Our NA board and neighborhood advocates that I have heard from overwhelmingly advocate keeping the status quo as far as the number of district councilpersons in Metro. Emily, whether you are right or wrong, the combination that these neighborhood advocates are your root support group and the fact that votes for a smaller council have failed consistently over the years tells me that these efforts will fail, and will be a waste of your precious time that we have remaining with you on our Metro council. Our NA's 2 highest priorities are a downzoning for our neighborhood and the redevelopment of the 70/100 split. Other NA's also want to see this redevelopment. The very fact that we have not advanced as far as these issues is an ammunition in an argument against a larger council. Our fear is that in the next election we will get a pro business candidate who could care less about these issues. You have been a great councilperson and you can really achieve something with the 70/100 redo, but this council size thing will go down as one more failed attempt.

Why can't Emily Evans wait until she gets out of office and then organize people to lobby council to work on a referendum resolution?

1 comment:

  1. Mike, I made the facebook comment that you reference. If the reader follows the hyperlink, he will see that Emily explained the delays on both items and set us on a path to advance these issues. I will listen with an open mind to her presentation to my neighbors concerning the petition. To put this in perspective, I, with other pro-neighborhood advocates, appreciate Emily Evans, as well as your efforts.