Why parochialism trumps everything in local governments
Written by Michael Lewis on May 26, 2015
When our commissioners battle parochially, it’s not good guys vs. bad guys. Because each wins office via geographic voting, they face a dysfunctional dilemma about how to serve the public.
Assuming that they’re trying to do their best, commissioners elected from single-member districts face four possible choices:
• Act for my district.
• Act for the people who helped elect me.
• Act for the whole community.
• Act as my brain and conscience dictate.
All of these are valid ways of looking at how to serve, write legislation and vote. But some, to corrupt a line from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” are far more valid than others.
Representative government works best when elected officials trust their conscience on what will best serve the whole community. It stumbles when they divvy up the pie so that each district’s share is equal, regardless of whether that is the smartest use of limited resources.
And it works absolutely worst when commissioners not only divvy up the pie by district but then try to erect walls around their districts and take control of whatever goes on inside those walls, telling other commissioners: keep out, this is mine.
That’s when commissioners on the dais talk about being collegial – a code word for keeping out of someone else’s territory and splitting the pot of resources equally rather than intelligently.
When commissioners are at their most parochial, they say they were elected to look out for their district, that that’s what the voters had in mind when they went to the polls – as though commissioners could read minds.
While all this sounds theoretical, it plays out poorly in practice.
As county commissioners last week discussed raising fees to use land beside American Airlines Arena that serves Miami Heat entities, Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district bulges out to encompass the site, said that the plan sponsored by Juan Zapata would impact county property within her district and she should get deference to decide because it’s a local matter, not countywide.
“If this goes through,” she said, “then I think each one of us will now have to worry about each other crossing the lines and coming in and just doing what they want to do in everybody’s district. This is disrespectful.”
Out of respect for district lines or for whatever reason, commissioners did not raise the Miami Heat’s bill.
The week before, Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo, who represents Little Havana, sought a city trolley route in his own district but suggested that it extend into the middle of Flagami, which is in Francis Suarez’s district.
Mr. Carollo had gone to a senior center in Mr. Suarez’s district to build support for trolleys there. Mr. Suarez said he was “shocked,” that he should have been consulted first “in the spirit of collaboration” because “you’re splitting Flagami in two.”
Responded Mr. Carollo: “I’m saddened that you feel this way because there was no ill intent on it. Yes, it will cross district lines. It may have three district lines.”
In the end, the other commissioners voted to keep the service mostly in Mr. Carollo’s district.
Transportation choices often are based on whose district will get served. Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto made the point clearly in a debate over small circulator buses late in 2012, after transit officials said that adding more extremely local circulators would take money that could build countywide transportation.
“We are first and foremost elected by single-member districts,” Mr. Souto argued in saying the circulator buses should come first. “This is not being parochial. It’s being representative of our district. We have to take care of the districts we represent… We’re not getting the fair share of what we have to get…. My community is not being served well…. My people vote…. We are second-class citizens.”
Other people, he said, “have all kinds of transportation and we don’t.”
So, are commissioners wrong in arguing that taking care of their districts comes first and others should keep out? Of course, we’d be better served if commissioners were looking out for the entire community, but we constructed voting so as to give commissioners every incentive to be parochial – that’s how they get votes.
As the National League of Cities puts it in analyzing government formats, “councils elected by district elections may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their district.”
But if we don’t elect from districts, how can we be certain that special areas and their minorities are represented?
The answer is simple: maintain current districts, with candidates coming from them, but vote on those candidates citywide or countywide. Commissioners would still represent districts, but to be elected they would face all the voters, which would reduce parochialism.
Statesmanship is rare, but if we are ever to see commissions think area wide and plan ahead, the only hope is to use brain and conscience for the common good – and our single-member system works against that.
Such change requires government charter reform. As it happens, Miami Commissioner Suarez is at this moment heading a review of Miami’s charter – an ideal time for an upgrade.
Reform of the district system won’t guarantee better local government. But not reforming guarantees that we won’t get better.
Parochialism may be a valid choice – but it’s not a good choice.