July 22, 2018

Ideas Good and Bad

Dr. Malcolm Cross

A recent issue of the Stephenville Empire-Tribune is reporting that the Stephenville City Council is once again considering two frequently-proposed changes in the city charter—reducing the city council’s size, and imposing term limits on city council members.  Two years ago, the last time these proposals were made, I wrote a column criticizing them, which can be found here:  http://theflashtoday.com/2016/08/29/if-it-aint-broke/.  I’m not going to simply rehash all the arguments I made then.  Rather I’m going to try to offer a new perspective on why these ideas are bad.  I’ll conclude with another proposal I think would be very good, meaning that most readers may find it pretty awful.  We’ll see.

My main objection to reducing both the council size and the length of time council members might potentially serve is that to do so reduces the freedom of the voters to pick and choose whom they want—and whom they don’t want—to serve on their city council.

The main reason for reducing the council size—in this case, from nine to seven, including the Mayor—is that to do so will produce a more efficient council.  I have several objections to this argument:

First, efficiency of operation should not be the end-all or be-all of government.  Indeed, the framers of our national and state constitutions applied the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances to build in some degree of inefficiency.  They preferred more caution, prudence, deliberation, and debate in making and implementing public policy.  As I noted in my first article on the subject, the size of our city council reduces the workload of each council member and allows the creation of specialized committees to address questions of public policy before the full council votes on them.  While debate in committee preceding debate in a full council session may consume more time, more debate may produce better public policy decisions. 

Moreover, as I argued previously, a larger council creates more opportunities for a more diverse city council, with different council members coming from different backgrounds and contributing different perspectives to the study of the issues before the council.  Reducing the council size may reduce those opportunities for diversity.

But perhaps most importantly, reducing the council size reduces the opportunity for the voters to select their council members.  Years ago, before I myself joined the council, the council appointed me to a commission to advise it on whether the city charter should be amended to replace our current at-large place system with a single-member-district system.  The most cogent argument made against doing so was offered by a voter who noted that under the single-member-district-system she could vote for only one council member to represent the chunk of territory in which she lived, but under the current system she could vote for not only a Mayor, but four additional council members each year to work for her.  Reducing the council size as is currently proposed would reduce the number of public servants the voters could elect to serve them.

And term limits would reduce the voters’ opportunities to select their council members even more.  Imposing term limits on elected officials is sometimes necessary if the officials in question can otherwise potentially acquire too much power to threaten the freedom and fairness of the elections which keep them in office.  For centuries, by law or tradition, we’ve imposed term limits on the president and many state governments, and for good reason.  The president is the commander-in-chief of the national armed forces, while state governors command their states’ national guard units.  Chief executives, in other words, control massive firepower, and for that reason alone term limits may be justified.

U. S. senators and representatives, as well as state lawmakers, can frequently channel billions of dollars to their states and districts, thereby buying the goodwill—and the votes—of their constituents.  And state lawmakers have an additional power with which to affect the outcome of elections as well—they typically have the power to draw, and redraw, election district boundaries every ten years (or more frequently), and can thereby change district boundaries to increase their own chances, as well as those of favored congressmen, for re-election.  Indeed, it’s been said, with more truth than humor, that the people don’t select their lawmakers; the lawmakers select their people.  So a strong case can be made for term limits for national and state lawmakers as well.

But not for Stephenville city council members.  They lack the power and command over resources to reduce the fairness of the elections by which they stand or fall.  To the contrary, the voters already have far more freedom to replace incumbent council members they don’t like through the mechanism of a free election.  On the other hand, limits on how long council members may serve in office will reduce the freedom of the voters to retain those council members whom they genuinely do like, and whose service the voters would otherwise want to prolong.

Of course, the city council has a perfect right to try to amend the charter by having the public vote on whether to adopt these changes.  And of course, the voters have every right to support these changes if they choose.  But should the city council put these changes to a vote, I’ll vote against them.  However, I might well vote on a proposal—should one be made–to have the city tax rate set by election of the people rather than by vote of the council. I’ll talk about this more in my next column.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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