COLUMN: Don't add more seats to City Council, it won't help

Friday, February 26, 2010 | 4:05 p.m. CST
The Columbia City Council has just moved into roomy new chambers and post-Census ward reapportionment is right around the corner. In the next few years, the city will have both the means and opportunity to expand the size of its legislative body. In an effort to bring some real numbers to bear upon all the speculation, I brought my measuring tape to city hall and measured their new digs as well as the old chambers. Then, I visited about 75 different city Web sites to calculate how Columbia compared to its peers. To keep the numbers consistent, I always counted mayors as part of a town’s council (or board of aldermen, or commission), even if they had a more executive role.

The dais in the City Council's new chamber was built to accommodate at least two additional council members, but that doesn't mean it should.

I've digitally scoped out the city councils of all 51 U.S. cities within 5,000 residents of Columbia's population, as well as those of Missouri's 21 largest cities, and really only learned one thing: City council size isn't as important as we think.

City councils and equivalent bodies near Columbia's size have an average of 7.8 members (including mayors), but that number is dragged down by the 16 California cities with five-member councils. When you ignore California, the average jumps to 9.1. For Missouri's 21 largest cities, that number is 9.4. None of those 20 other cities have a council smaller than Columbia's.

Thanks to California, the five-member council was the most popular among my sample, followed by the seven-member configuration favored by Columbia. Why do so many of those California cities have councils made up of three representatives, a mayor and a vice mayor? I'll give you a hint: It's not because they've figured out something the rest of us missed.

When I called Eva Spiegel of the League of California Cities, she replied with the PR equivalent of a shrug. The League's experts said it has something to do with the fact that in California, more than three quarters of the cities are governed by general law while the remainder have special charters. Charter cities can go as big as they please, but all those general law cities must have between four and nine city council members. Spiegel said it's "traditional" for them to have five, but there's no nifty quirk or story behind the number.

The California example is a telling one: City councils are just plain weird, and usually there's no larger meaning than that.

Consider Broken Arrow, Okla. Voters there choose four ward representatives and one at-large member to four-year terms. Every other year, those five luminaries get together, presumably in a smoke-filled back room, and choose who among themselves will get to be mayor for the next two years. In other words, the city's mayoral election is limited to just five votes. It's like the the electoral college, only more broken.

At the other end of the spectrum is Albany, N.Y. That state capital's 15-member Common Council has political parties, a majority leader and no less than nine subcommittees — all the classic trappings of bloated government, and all to govern a city no larger than Columbia.

In their 1989 work "On the size of the City Council," Douglas Muzzio and Tim Tompkins write that councils tend to grow over time. Population is certainly a factor, but there's something more at play: incumbent job security.

New spots give ambitious would-be politicians offices to seek, thus making it easier for those already elected to keep their jobs. I can name at least a half dozen people in Columbia who think that's a good thing.

Assuming Columbia voters know what's good for them, the problem with adding these ambitious new council members is that they're folks who would not have made the cut otherwise. They are, according to voters, worse than the people we've already elected. So, by that measure at least, overall council quality would go down.

At-large seats would partially solve this problem, as they'd allow more seats for wards with a surfeit of qualified candidates while keeping the representation from less-qualified sectors of the city to the one-candidate minimum. Unfortunately, they're also a terrible, terrible idea because at-large seats are often nothing but a sinister means of stealth gerrymandering.

The only worthwhile argument in favor of adding council seats is that, with more wards, there will be more chances for minority populations to elect one of their own to represent them on council. At-large seats take that chance away and instead consolidate the power of the city's majority.

Furthermore, the costs of adding council seats go far beyond the one-time expenditure for ward reapportionment.

The council's a relative bargain right now, but at some point they're going to get around to awarding themselves a salary. And we don't want to be paying more of those folks than we absolutely have to.

And that's not even counting the extra money that would be dumped into campaigns for the new seats.

As far as time goes, anyone who has sat through current council meetings will tell you that the last thing we need is more people sitting up there and talking. Add a few more and members will be lucky if they finish the meetings in time to walk directly into work on Tuesday morning.

Group dynamics experts claim that the bigger the group and the less you know everyone else, the more likely you are to whine and disagree. It's an observation that makes me wonder if our City Council isn't too big already.

Andrew Van Dam is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. He was born in California.

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Dale Jones February 27, 2010 | 2:13 p.m.

We don't need more City Council members, but different City Council members which include the Mayor. We need City Council members who have background in business and professional management. We also need a NEW City Manager who doesn't belong to the "old" City Manager organization. WE NEED CHANGE TODAY!!

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 27, 2010 | 2:47 p.m.

@Dale Jones:
After serving as the Mayor of Columbia for almost a decade and a half, Darwin Hindman will no longer be on Council.
Perhaps some one not aligned with the Chamber of Commerce's upper echelon might be most responsive to gavel central.
From what I've gathered, Sid Sullivan seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. (My doctor, not the Chamber's.)

I'd also be interested in knowing what the mayoral candidates think of the following:
Recently, the chief of police divided Columbia up into four quadrants, instead of precincts.
Would there be any value to having a Ward liaison officer for each Councilperson and the mayor could liaison with the Chief of Police?
And what about a city-wide ordinance for teenage curfew instead of city paid cameras "given" to a special interest group in "the District" which no other neighborhood in town will have access to, when and if they're really needed?

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