Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Creating Jobs or Rearranging the Deck Chairs?

the issue: number of city council seats

Over the course of a year, a committee set about the complex task of designing a new charter for the City of Pensacola. Among the issues which they discussed was the number of City Council members and the existence of at-large council seats. After considerable deliberation, they decided to leave the existing structure as it was.

Why did the charter commission keep the existing council structure?

People in our community are passionate about voting for those who represent them. And they should be. When a previous city-county charter commission proposed changing from elected to appointed constitutional officers, that issue was attributed to the failure of the entire initiative. If we were to change from the current system of seven district representatives and two at-large representatives on council, the voters of Pensacola would lose considerable control over their city government.

Under the current system, every voter casts four votes. One for the mayor, one for their district representative, and two for at-large council members. That means they have four out of ten city officials directly accountable to them. Why would the voters want to reduce their voice on the city council by two-thirds? But more important than how many votes they cast on election day, the current system increases the chances that their perspectives will be voiced during council deliberations.

The Wisdom of Crowds.

Each individual council member has a different life experience, different passions, diverse knowledge. Each asks different questions helping shape a better final decision that considers many points of view.

The more people participating in the debate, the more likely all angles of an issue will be considered and the more likely the final product will be better than any one person could have created.

Consider juries, which are typically twelve people, regardless of the size of the community. In decisions about jury size, the Supreme Court has stated that juries should be “large enough to promote group deliberations”. It is not a question of the size of the community, but rather a question of the size of the group which determines whether a sound decision will be reached.

But what about the costs?

Council members are currently paid $14,000 a year. In the scale of the city’s budget, each additional council member’s salary is a drop in the bucket. If more members provide better decision making on a $200 million budget, that $14,000 is worth it.

As we work under the new charter, we continue to have questions on implementation. This is not one of them. The commission made a clear decision on this, and we should spend our energies discussing more pressing issues.

Our community faces serious challenges as well as many opportunities to shape our destiny. We should not be distracted by how many seats are on the council, when the people of this community are more concerned about how many good jobs we can create. We have many, many important matters before us; we should not be worried with rearranging the deck chairs.