Here are a couple of questions approximately zero people ask as they inch along Reed Market and Butler Market roads on their way to and from work every day:
Should Bend have an elected mayor?
Should city councilors be elected by ward?
Nonetheless, Bend’s charter is a subject of great interest on City Council, where things apparently look a little different. In June, Council agreed to establish a citizen committee that would recommend charter changes to be voted on in May 2018. On Wednesday, members of the committee pitched their recommendations to councilors, who, to their credit, appeared highly ambivalent about wards.
The best that can be said of this debate is that the stakes are low. The manner in which city councilors are elected now simply isn’t a problem, which is a pretty good reason to leave things the way they are. On the other hand, “fixing” this nonproblem isn’t likely to create significant problems. Plenty of cities use a ward system of some sort without catastrophic effect.
That isn’t to say that councilors — and, if necessary, voters — should shrug and say, “whatever.” Splitting a city into wards is an inherently divisive act. While the harm done by such a change might be minimal, the potential for harm does exist. Why go there without good reason?
The system by which City Council’s seven members are now chosen is simple and fair. Candidates choose which of seven Council positions to seek, and voters throughout the city choose the winner for each position. Councilors appoint a mayor from among themselves.
The system proposed by the charter review committee and discussed Wednesday by Council would divide Bend into four wards. Voters in each ward would choose their councilor. Two additional councilors and a mayor would be chosen by citywide votes.
Adopting a ward system, the thinking goes, would ensure that councilors come from all parts of the city — or at least from the quadrants established by the charter. However, separating the city into wards won’t guarantee that each ward will magically produce motivated and qualified candidates on cue. By agreeing to wall off parts of the city, then, voters would limit the candidate pool in exchange for a benefit that might sound good to a high-minded city committee — forced geographic diversity — but work badly in reality.
Another potential drawback of the ward system involves the wards themselves, which would be readjusted roughly every decade following the census. Though City Council positions are nonpartisan, candidates tend to have very distinct ideological differences, and councilors are pushed and pulled constantly by interest groups of various kinds. It would be naive to assume that the ward-adjustment process, whatever its mechanism, would not also be subject to the same partisan forces, as the results inevitably would benefit some groups more than others. The readjustment stakes would be particularly high if ward candidates were elected only by ward residents, as the committee recommends, rather than by voters across the city.
This inevitable ward-adjustment maneuvering would happen largely in the background, at least as far as most of us are concerned. People are busy, after all. And the same person who isn’t wondering, during her slow commute, whether councilors should be elected by ward is even less likely to be wondering years from now how the ward-adjustment process is going. Yet it will matter.
If the way city councilors are elected were truly problematic, then perhaps there would be a good reason to consider an alternative model that divides the city, reduces voters’ options, increases complexity and renders the electoral process more vulnerable to partisan machinations — and thus less transparent. But such problems are either imagined or grossly exaggerated.
If city councilors lack the common sense to recognize this when the charter discussion resumes later this month, voters should prepare to set them straight in May.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.