VIEWPOINT Edward Annen, Jr.
I have followed with great interest the proposals put forward by the Charter Review Committee. There is that old maxim, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it." That is how I feel about suggestions to change the Charter. From 1917 to the present day, our community, operating under the current Charter, has been blessed with clean, good government. Any changes to a Charter that has contributed to this atmosphere should be viewed with great caution.
There are three major proposals being suggested.
The first, is the direct election of the Mayor. I oppose this. It is often said that a separate election for Mayor would ensure that only those who wanted the job would get it. History suggests this is not really an issue. City elections have continually elected to the mayorship those who sought the job. This has certainly been true over the past several decades. Casting false modesty aside, every mayor elected in the post war era enjoyed the job and wanted it. Most recently, Mayor Jones publicly stated that he had wanted the job and campaigned for the top spot. Not once, has the mayorship been thrust upon the unwary or was it unwanted by the top vote getter. And, even if the job fell on that person not wanting it, under the current Charter, the job can be rejected.
Also, having a direct election of Mayor generally means that one very qualified person would be lost to public service. I replaced Mayor Hamilton. If it had been Hamilton vs. Annen, one of us would have been denied public service. The same is true if separate Mayor elections had involved Ham vs. VanderPloeg, or Moore vs. Lipsey, or Larson vs. Heilman, or Jones vs McKinney. I think a blessing of the current system is that the second place finisher is able to serve the City. While in the instance of Portage, when Mayor Brown beat out Nancy Jean, her invaluable services were lost to her City government.
It has been said that a separate election of the mayor would permit two candidates to set forth clearly their respective policy proposals for the voters to decide between. This is a wonderfully romantic notion of small town democracy, but does not equate with the historical reality of separate mayoral elections in middle to small sized cities, where the election is non-partisan. The historical fact is that unless the mayorship is vacant and two newcomers are running, practically never does a sitting mayor receive any serious opposition. Again, examine our sister city of Portage. When the mayorship was vacant, there was a spirited race between Don Overlander and Claude Schuring. Don Overlander won, and faced no opponents in elections for Mayor thereafter. Similarly, when ill health forced Mayor Overlander to retire from public life, there was a spirited race to succeed him between Gary Brown and Nancy Jean. Gary Brown won, and as a sitting mayor, in the last election ran unopposed. I believe the same will be true in Kalamazoo. For a variety of reasons incumbent commissioners or vice mayors are hesitant to run against their sitting mayor, and very seldom does a serious non-incumbent run against a sitting mayor. So rather than produce a spirited discussion of policy direction, non-partisan separate elections for mayor in cities our size and smaller, generally amount to nothing more than coronation celebrations for another term.
The second proposal involves proportional voting. First, this methodology, which once grew in favor in the 1970s, is on the wane. And second, it is contrary to the j current thinking that to increase turnout the voting process should be made easier rather than more difficult. For many, unschooled in everyday politics and electoral processes, the current ballot at almost every level of government is too confusing. Proportional voting would make the local ballot a bundle of confusion for the average and I believe would result in even lower turnout. And, ~ believe it could serve to harm the mandate of whomever is elected mayor. Just wait to see what happens when the top voter getter is not mayor, because another, with fewer overall votes, is elected because he or she received a handful more first place votes.
The final proposal involves lengthening the terms of commissioners to four years and staggering said terms. I also oppose this. First, city commission races are not yearlong events costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Generally they are 6 to 8 week races wherein the top financed candidates spend $5000.00 to $10,000.00 to be elected. We are not plagued with a two year term wherein the second year amounts to one long campaign during which little gets done. Second, although I value very much that our governance is not a town hall meeting democracy I do think that when it comes to the most local of politics, city elections, it is very healthy to get a pulse on the voters thoughts, impulses and beliefs every two years. The advantage of the current system, is that the entire commission receives those thoughts and impulses at the same time and therein can chart a responsive course to what they have heard on the campaign trail. What is the alternative? Do 4 incumbents not up for election hold fast to their views, when two who run with similar views in a staggered election are soundly defeated. Do those 4 change their views to reflect the election results and thank the stars above that they were not the object of the voters' wrath. On the surface four year staggered terms has a certain appeal, but when the realities of it are examined in depth, it is much less appealing.
Perhaps the most often heard argument for staggered terms is a wish to avoid a wholesale turnover on the commission such as occurred in 1995 when only two incumbents ran. The question I ask is "Why was that so bad?" We had an infusion of fresh blood and fresh ideas, generally viewed as quite positive in a democracy. And frankly, I always thought the claim that "It took me a while to learn the job, and with a majority of us being newcomers, the city suffered", to be just too cute and disingenuous. I think it is designed to seek compassion for poor judgment rather than reflect any realistic learning curve. Serving on the commission is not akin to working in a nuclear physics lab, nor is the city budget akin to the U.S. Tax Code. I have never heard a candidate campaign on a platform of: "I don't know what to do if I get elected." I have universally heard candidates speak with great confidence about their ability to do the job if elected. The current commission is an example. As a consistent observer of city government, by and large they all seem to be performing in an excellent manner. Mayor Jones, Vice Mayor McKinney, Commissioners Cooney, and Teeter, have been, in the best tradition of the commission, fast learners, and don't seem shackled by being "new commissioners."
The Charter Committee did a great service to the City in thinking through and organizing a variety of thoughts on the Charter. But, that does not mean their service must result in change, unless it is very clearly shown by a strong preponderance of objective evidence, that positive change will result. Given all I have said above, I do not believe sufficient evidence exists portending positive change with these proposals. What one would be doing is taking quite an unwarranted risk by creating changes which objective, factual analysis suggests will not achieve the desired, results.
One final note, is that both urban expert David Rusk and the Fresh Start Committee have placed before this Commission and community clear and compelling arguments that we face serious economic and regional issues. I believe the Commission and community should focus on these compelling challenges with laser like intensity. Anything that distracts from that focus would not be in the community's interest at this time. I believe we are better served to have our attention directed to economic development and regional cooperation issues, then being distracted and told to focus upon how to lengthen the terms of commissioners and separate the mayor from the pack. If we do not meet the Rusk/Fresh Start challenges, serving as mayor or on the commission will be a meaningless exercise in any event.
Ed Annen, Jr