If It Ain’t Broke…

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Dr. Malcolm Cross
Dr. Malcolm Cross

“If it ain’t broke,” goes the saying, “don’t fix it.”

I thought of this saying when I read that the Stephenville City Council was studying proposals to change the city charter.  Some of the proposals are not only unnecessary, but possible threats to democracy as well.

Stephenville employs the council-manager form of government, wherein a city council elected by the people makes public policy, and hires a professional city manager to implement its policies under its supervision. 

One proposal is to reduce the size of the city council from nine to seven.  Granted, our council is considered large for the size of our population, but a nine-person council has its advantages.  A larger council increases the chances for diversity among its members, and not simply of the sorts—race, ethnicity, and gender—with which academia is obsessed.  A larger council will also contain more opportunities for men and women from different walks of life—business, the professions, blue-collar employment, farming and ranching, academia—to bring their differing perspectives to problem solving and decision making.  To reduce the size of the council is to reduce the chances for the sort of diversity that can provide those worthwhile perspectives and thereby improve council decisions.

Moreover, reducing the size of the council may increase the workload of the remaining members.  Council members work part-time for little or no pay–the Mayor theoretically earns a salary of $400.00 a month and other council members earn $200.00 a month, but Tarleton employees are prohibited by state law from receiving any salary at all.  To better study the issues, the city council has traditionally divided itself into committees, with each committee specializing in a different policy area—public safety, public finance, public works, etc.  By employing this division of labor, the city council can better distribute its workload among its members.  But reduction of the size of the council means a reduction in the number of council members doing the same amount of work.  The size of the council should remain at nine.

Another bad idea is term limits for council members.  Democracy is endangered in two ways:  First, to limit the number of terms a council member may serve is to limit the right of the public to select whomever they want to serve on the council. 

Moreover, term limits reduce the time council members have to study the issues and do their own research.  They may therefore become more dependent on information supplied by unelected bureaucrats instead.  This is not necessarily bad, especially if the unelected officials are men and women of integrity and ability, as is currently the case in Stephenville.  But in a truly democratic society, democratically elected officials should have the time and opportunity to do their own research without becoming too dependent on unelected administrators.  Otherwise, the unelected, by controlling the information to the elected, may come to exercise too much power over the elected by controlling their decision making.  It is the elected who should control the unelected, and not the other way around.

If the public had no other way of ridding itself of unwanted council members than term limits might be more necessary.  But the recent political history of Stephenville shows that we already have the best possible method for getting rid of unwanted council members—a free election, i. e., one that cannot be manipulated or controlled by an incumbent council member wanting to retain his seat.  Whatever one may think of the results of recent city council elections, the fact that three incumbents (myself included) were defeated in the last two years is proof that democracy and free elections are alive and well in Stephenville, making arbitrarily imposed term limits unnecessary.

The final unnecessary proposal to change the charter is to amend it by specifying that the council-member form of government shall be the official form.  True, we already have the council-manager form, as adopted by ordinance.  So why go to the expense of an election to confirm what we already have?

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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