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.
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.
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.