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Saturday, October 22, 2005
Three Philosophical Matters about Representative Local Government

Should City Council Members Influence Vision and Direction?

Thursday evening, American Fork mayoral candidate Heber Thompson asked city council candidates how the obviously necessary cooperation of Mayor and City Council should work. The candidates responding to the question turned it into, What do you, as a prospective Council member, expect of the Mayor? This is not exactly what he asked, but it is a very useful question. (Next week, I hope to hear the mayoral candidates discuss what they expect of the Council.)

Incumbent Councilman Jimmie Cates said he expects the Mayor to set direction and give information and guidance, and the Council will vote on the Mayor's proposals. Maybe Cates did not intend such to describe such a limited, rubber-stamp role for the Council, but that's how it came out. Some mayors may feel otherwise, but I expect more from my elected representatives. I expect the Mayor to play the leading role, to be sure, but not the only major role. More to my satisfaction, some other candidates indicated that they expect the Mayor to work with them on what matters to them, too, not just what matters to him, and generally to mold a coherent, collaborative vision and direction.

At the national level, which is in many ways a useful model for local governments, Congress does not just sit back and wait for the President to propose legislation, on which they then vote yea or nay. In fact, the President himself cannot even formally propose a bill or resolution; only members of the House and Senate can. Typically, of course, there are members of both houses who are willing to do the President's bidding. Often there is a lot of cooperation and coordination between the White House and Capitol Hill, with the President playing the largest single role in determining vision and direction. But vision and direction are not his sole purview; nor should they be. The legislative branch is very influential. Why should it not be so in American Fork?

Should an Elected Representative Always Follow the Majority's Will?

One candidate - my notes and memory are not clear as to which - said Thursday evening that a City Councilor should always vote with the majority of the residents. This sounds nice, perhaps, but is really inappropriate in a representative government, besides being grossly impractical.

Of course a representative should be sensitive to his constituents, but sensible voters expect their representatives to have devote time and develop expertise which the general public cannot, and to understand specific issues and their place in the broader picture more completely and insightfully than the voters at large. Essentially, we elect representatives to be our experts. That purpose is defeated if they feel they must follow us slavishly on specific issues, especially when the majority's will is poorly informed or contrary to what is best for the city. I expect my representatives to listen to and think about what I and others say, but then to do what they personally believe is best for the city, no matter what I or anyone else thinks about it.

Besides, it is highly impractical, even nearly impossible, to determine the will of an actual majority on substantial numbers of issues. The only official mechanism we have for determining majority will is the election, and we can't use that very often. On certain issues, such as general obligation bond issues, a separate ballot item is required. But as a rule, voters hire and pay their representatives to do their homework conscientiously and make the best decision, not to take unofficial polls in which uninformed opinion is weighted equally with informed opinion. Following the majority (when its will can be determined) in an unreflective fashion is a breach of the public trust. I'm not saying that representatives should never defer to a clear, correctly interpreted majority opinion, especially when one course of action is not inherently superior to another - but these are exceptions, not the rule.

In short, we elect leaders to lead, not follow. Our current Council sometimes seems paralyzed if there are strong opinions on both sides of an issue, or if public opinion on a matter seems evenly divided. For example, a year or two ago, the City Council took an unscientific survey of resident opinion on a particular issue. The results were very near 50 percent in favor and 50 percent opposed. Collectively, the Council and Mayor decided that this absence of a clear majority meant that the Council should take no action. My take was different (though irrelevant): The even division meant that the Council could make whatever decision they thought best, without prohibitive political cost. It was not a great moment of political leadership in American Fork.

Should a Mayor Try to Keep Council Members from Talking to the Media?

Incumbent Councilwoman Juel Belmont reported Thursday evening that, early in her first term, Mayor Barratt instructed her not to talk to the media without his advance approval. If what she heard and reported is both what he said and what he meant, it was a serious mistake. A leader may not always be comfortable with an elected representative's press statements or media savvy generally (often for good reason), and representatives in some cases can seriously jeopardize important issues or even human life by handling such matters ineptly. But this is a risk we have to take in a democratic republic. I see no problem with a representative wanting to consult with another leader or with staff before talking to the media, and I see the necessity of protecting justifiably classified or confidential information (which representatives must in some instances receive) with laws and criminal penalties even for elected representatives who reveal them. But generally the people's representatives must be free to speak with the media at will. Other leaders (elected or otherwise) must not attempt to restrict this. It poses some difficulties and risks, but the price of restricting representatives' media contact is unacceptably high. I suspect that nearly all elected representatives are smart enough and conscientious enough to see the desirability of managing the message that the public receives, but their cooperation in such matters should be voluntary, not coerced.

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