Should Lincoln City city councilors be elected from just their “wards” or should they run “at large?”
The Lincoln City City Council asked City Manager David Hawker to do some unusual homework recently. After being challenged by a citizen at the podium to explore other ways to elect city councilors to more accurately reflect the wide demographics of the town, Hawker set out to explore the art-of-the-possible on that.
Below is Mr. Hawker’s completed homework assignment. And as you read his report, you’ll see there seems to be as much support for keeping Lincoln City’s strict “Ward” system in place as much as there is in scrapping it.
After reviewing the materials and considering my own experience with both systems as a city manager in cities from 7,500 – 30,000+, I have compiled a list of possible pros and cons. Some items may appear on both lists meaning they could be one or the other depending on the circumstances.
This is truly a political issue and I will refrain from any recommendation. I do suggest that the major goal of the system is to provide broad representation of the population.
• Ward elections are generally less expensive for candidates.
• Ward elections can ensure more minority representation.
• Ward elections bring government closer to the voter and increases accountability.
• Ward elections ensure that all areas of the city are represented.
• Ensures that neighborhood concerns are heard; people believe that they have more
chance to be heard in a ward system.
• Ward elections decrease the chance that several or most members of the council will be
from one area of the city.
• Permits more effective canvassing by political candidates; candidates may be better
known in their ward than city-wide.
• Ward system has less value for smaller, more homogenous cities such as Lincoln City.
• Many of Lincoln City issues are city-wide, not ward-specific.
• Can run into difficulties finding good candidates to run from each ward.
• Research has shown that there is less conflict between council members in an at-large
system (this has not been a real problem in Lincoln City for many years).
• Unless minority population is concentrated in one area, Ward system does not increase
• More difficulty in filling vacancies that occur.
I will add a few other observations.
It is not clear to me that the assertion of switching to at-large will increase diversity on the Council, which is indeed a worthy goal. We have certainly not seen any time in recent memory where the demographics of the Council came close to the city as far as age, sex, ethnicity, income, etc. Perhaps we should look to other solutions to increase representation among these groups.
The issue of broader representation may be related to the number of candidates running for
office. Over the last decade, we have had many seats uncontested. My experience is that is most likely to occur when there is not broad dissatisfaction with the government. Assuming that is the reason, it is hard to overcome. There are other potential reasons citizens may not run for office:
– “It is too contentious” – that has not been our history.
– “It takes too much time” – perhaps.
– “It doesn’t matter” – not true but could be a factor.
– “ I can’t afford it” – many of our citizens work multiple jobs, or have children needing
care. I would not be surprised that the circus in Washington D.C. in recent years discourages people from becoming involved in politics. Some cities have chosen a ‘Mixed” system with a combination of wards and at large. For example, three elected by wards every four years, with three plus the mayor elected on alternate four year cycles.
Any change will require voter approval of a Charter Amendment.
If we stay with the ward system, or adopt a mixed system, consideration should be given to a change that ward members are not required to remain in the ward after being seated, or after some period of time. This has been a problem for Lincoln City.
With any change, you may wish to consider if council vacancies should require an election if a certain amount of the term is left. If you wish to make a change, I suggest a general election where the largest voter turn-out will occur.
I believe that our system of representation is good in providing a stable government, i.e. half the council members elected at a time for four year terms. While this system is fairly common, it is by no means universal. Some cities experience complete turnovers or short terms and sometimes find little experience of their elected officials.
At the end of the discussion, the council decided to run the idea of possibly changing the city’s method of electing city councilors among the citizens of Lincoln City. The council and Mr. Hawker all said they welcome citizen comments on the issue as citizens see fit to mail, email, telephone or testify before the city council under public comment periods which occur twice in every city council meeting.