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Three reasons a seven member council will be good for the city

City of Amsterdam residents will be able to decide whether to add two at-large members to the common council in this November’s election. The Charter Review Commission voted recently to put the charter change up for public referendum. The two new proposed positions will be elected by the entire city, while the other five positions will continue to be elected by their respective wards. All members will serve the same two-year terms.

If approved by voters, this measure could be a significant change to the way politics is practiced in the city. Whether our somewhat change-resistant community will support it or not remains to be seen but I believe the change would be a good one for the city. It would rectify some of the shortcomings of our current ward-based system, while still preserving it’s positive benefits.

1. A better balance between neighborhood needs and city needs

An idea to abolish the wards completely was floated around the blogs a while back, and I wasn’t in favor of it. The good thing about our ward system is that it holds council members accountable to the the neighborhoods that they live in. Here’s a comparison of the average total voters in each ward for common council races in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Voter_turnout_graph

Average votes cast ’09,’11,’13. Source: Montgomery County Board of Elections

It’s an uncomfortable fact that some neighborhoods have significantly higher voter turnout than others. If all the common council positions were at-large, candidates would have no choice but to concentrate on the needs of those neighborhoods in order to win votes. It’s not a good thing that some wards have such a low voter turnout. But as a matter of principle, I think it’s important that issues in all the wards, regardless of voter turnout, are equally represented. The current ward system ensures that.

The downside of this system is that in neighborhoods with higher voter turnout, residents who actually vote have effectively less representation in city government when it comes to city-wide issues. A single voter in a low-turnout ward will have a greater influence on their alderman or alderwoman than one in a high-turnout ward. The two at-large positions will help balance the system because they will represent all the voters in the city equally, regardless of their ward.

2. Candidates with broad city support will won’t be blocked in their own ward

Looking at the total votes for each candidate for common council in the most recent election reveals an interesting fact. Some candidates lost in their ward’s race even though they received more votes than some candidates who won in other wards.

Edward Russo 550 Won
Kenneth Mazur 394 Lost
Ronald Barone 332 Won
Richard Leggerio 327 Won
Deborah Baranello 298 Lost
Valerie Beekman 288 Won
Diane Hatzenbuhler 264 Won
David Dybas 183 Lost

 

It’s not uncommon for popular council members to serve their ward for multiple terms. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can create a situation where an otherwise well qualified candidate with significant voter support is unable to serve because they don’t have enough votes in their own ward. The new system will give an opening to candidates who find themselves in that situation. We as a city stand to benefit from the ideas and leadership of these additional members who may not have had a chance under the current system.

3. More representation is always better

Right now, each city resident has one person to represent them on the common council. With the new system, each resident will have three. While it’s currently not uncommon for council members to help those outside their ward, at the end of the day, they are going to give the highest priority to concerns in their own ward. If for various reasons your alderman or alderwoman isn’t able to address your concerns, you currently don’t have very many other options. With the additional two council members, you have two more representatives on the council who you can talk to who are also directly accountable to you at election time.

November’s election will be here before you know it. It’s not too early to start discussing this important proposed change to our charter.

(Featured image is a derivative of a photo by Alex Pepperhill / CC BY 2.0)

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About Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of AnthemWebsites.com LLC which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.

7 Responses to Three reasons a seven member council will be good for the city

  1. Charlie Kraebel says:

    At-large is a good idea, but if the measure fails, what do you think of the idea of adding two council members and re-drawing the wards? I’m thinking specifically of the 5th Ward, which has the East Main corridor but is primarily a South Side district.

    • Tim Becker says:

      If voters reject the “at large” idea, it seems to me even less likely they would support redrawing the ward lines. But as far as the idea goes, I guess it would depend on how the lines were drawn as to whether it would be an improvement or not. Smaller wards would mean more representation per person, and would open two more windows for candidates. But I’m not sure if it would offset the problem of the voter turnout disparity and it wouldn’t give voters an alternate if they weren’t satisfied with their council member.

      • Charlie says:

        The at-large idea is a good one. Like John said, it seems to work well in Johnstown. Gloversville also has an at-large council position. My thinking, however, is that it doesn’t solve the problem of low turnout in specific election districts. Without having the hard numbers in front of me, my guess is that in the 2nd and 5th wards (and possibly the 4th), you’ll see the greatest disparity when it comes to votes cast in individual districts.

  2. John Becker says:

    Years ago there actually were seven wards in the city of Amsterdam. The people voted to change the number to five. I like the at-large idea. The city of Johnstown has five common council members: one for each of its four wards and one at-large. It seems to work well for them.

    • Billy85 says:

      Many, many years ago there were eight wards in the city of Amsterdam. Starting in 1982 it was reduced to the current number of five members. I like the at-large idea also. My question is the amount of compensation each new member would receive if this idea is accepted. Currently the five members each receive $ 5000 per year. What would be at-large members receive?? The same? or more if they encompass the entire city limits?

  3. Rogo says:

    County, larger budget, went to basically 3 reps in whole city. Why should we increase more expenses

  4. Rob Millan says:

    I think the two at-large alderman is a good idea, I just would hope that people who win the positions do so because they ran for it, versus ‘winning’ it because they lost a ward election. I do not think someone should be ‘elected’ at-large because they lost their campaign for a ward, nor do I think that they should treat the at-large as a ‘Plan B’ after having lost their respective ward. This would require the election to be on the ballot and the candidate to actually run for the position.