The pros and cons of having Council wards and deciding about it now

In this week’s Nfld News:  Redistrict? Council wants to eliminate wards

Northfield Ward and Precinct MapA discussion about how Northfield should go about redistricting took a left turn Tuesday as the city council approved a proposal to do away with its four wards and elect all its councilors at-large… “I don’t think we have a need for wards at all,” said Patrick Ganey, who represents Ward Four. “I feel we could do a much better job with at-large representatives.”

Councilors Suzie Nakasian and Erica Zweifel said their positions as ward representatives foster relationships between council member and residents. Rhonda Pownell, who at one time suggested doing away with wards, said she’s since changed her mind, agreeing with Nakasian and Zweifel, saying that electing councilors only at-large eliminates the personal connection residents can have with their ward rep.

Having discussions about eliminating wards while considering redistricting irritated Nakasian, who said parallel discussions would be “prejudicial;” Zweifel added that they would “feel disingenuous.”

Ganey defended his proposal, saying that the time and energy needed to redivide the city into voting wards is too great and that the city isn’t large enough to have sections of town with similar issues. “I’d like to avoid the redistricting process,” he said.

Anyone know if Rossing, Buckheit or Imm weighed in on the issue with their rationale for supporting Ganey’s position?

I’m undecided about whether 1) wards for a city the size of Northfield make sense and 2) if this is a good time to consider the issue. See Northfield’s Ward and Precinct map (PDF) and chime in.

15 comments to  (Including 4 Discussion Threads) The pros and cons of having Council wards and deciding about it now

  • 1
    David Ludescher says:

    I would like to see the ward system retained. Election results show significant voting disparities in the wards, and, in a representative democracy, those differing viewpoints deserve representation.

    In theory, the ward representative is my first and primary connection to governance. And, in theory, these representatives are presenting the ward’s issues and concerns to the larger council to be debated. In practice, I have not seen much ward advocacy. In fact, voting to eliminate your ward’s representation on the City Council (as Buckheit and Ganey have done) runs contrary to their elected positions.

  • 2

    David: we actually agree on something! I too think the wards should be retained, for these main reasons:

    It would concentrate political power
    While more seats would be open to newcomers, there would be far more people competing for each one. Newcomers would have trouble getting elected when a more-experienced candidate (but one who does not live in the same area or bring the same background) is always available.

    It would confuse and exclude constituents who do not follow City issues
    I believe it is helpful for constituents who do not follow City politics to have ward meetings and to have a clear representative to contact about City issues. It is far more intimidating to see a list of seven and just having to pick one at random. (This is the same as David’s point: “the ward representative is my first and primary connection to governance”)

    It would fail to address the unique issues of a given ward
    While our wards are relatively small geographically, they have unique concerns. Erica Zweifel and Suzie Nakasian, for example, have particular duties to the colleges, since the campuses lie mostly in their wards. Erica has worked hard for the TIGER crossing largely because people in her ward require safe crossing of N Hwy 3. Without ward representation, unique groups could be ignored, especially if new political power falls happens to fall into a limited geographic area. That’s not unlikely, since many of the politically interested live in the older and more central parts of town.

    The only real benefit from my perspective is that it would make it easier for a renter (completely unrepresented group) to serve on the council. But in practice, I doubt this would happen, since renters tend to be younger and less established, and newcomers would face intimidating elections for each seat.

    The other arguable benefit is that it allows everyone to represent everyone. But this already happens: I work far more with Erica and Betsey on City issues, despite living in Patrick’s ward. Our current system does a good job of combining whole-city concern with an individual ward’s representation.

    • 2.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Sean,

      I disagree that our current council does a good job of combining the ward/at-large concept. For example, can you remember ever hearing a ward rep arguing for “their” people? Have any of the ward reps suggested that the people in their ward don’t want to pay $12.0 million for a new Safety Center? Have you ever heard a ward rep argue that their people want Northfield to do a better job of keeping and attracting businesses, and that the business park might be a way to do this? Both in theory and in practice, they should be advocating for “their” people.

  • 3
    Patrick Enders says:

    This is an awfully big change to be making on the basis of:

    1) “I feel we could do a much better job with at-large representatives.”

    and

    2) “the time and energy needed to redivide the city into voting wards is too great and that the city isn’t large enough to have sections of town with similar issues. “I’d like to avoid the redistricting process,” he said.”

    I hope there’s a stronger argument in favor of this proposal than what’s been presented in the News from Councillor Ganey. If that’s the best argument available, then it is obvious that we should reject this proposal.

    • 3.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Patrick: I’m not sure of the exact wording of Councilor Ganey’s original motion, maybe he can chime in to clarify, but had an understanding by the end of the discussion that it was more of an exploration on the Council’s part than a total elimination. The vote was 4-3 in favor of whatever was the exact wording.

      However, I do not believe the redistricting process can be avoided at this time; it is my understanding that it must proceed on it’s designated timeline.
      The possibility of eliminating ward reps in favor of all at-large reps will be a discussion that can occur at the Council level this year, and would then have to go through various processes( including public input at several levels) to be implemented for the 2014 election, if it is decided to follow the all at-large structure.

      so, bottom line: an in depth Council discussion sometime this year, several public input opportunities, most likely a community wide vote (depends on Council unanimity or lack of, and method of required Charter change) … then implementation in next election cycle, not this year’s.

      • 3.1.1
        David Ludescher says:

        Kiffi,

        I never thought I would say this, but… what is your opinion?

      • 3.1.2
        kiffi summa says:

        David: On this one, I think could make an intellectual argument for either position… but if had to come down on one side, it would be for all at-large, which have actually been saying to VMS for years.

        I fully understand the ward one people thinking they are ‘different’, and the same argument could be made for the west side as attached to St. Olaf’s campus; both are old well established gridded neighborhoods with similar problems.
        I also understand the feelings expressed by councilors (Zweifel and Nakasian) who feel extra connected to the ward they live in; I think those are basically very socially conscious councilors who would have the same concerns for the neighborhood they live in if they were at large, but would not violate a citywide principle for the sake of their ward.

        But to me the overriding problem right now is the fourth ward, as created during the Covey ‘administration’. I remember sitting at the work session when Scott Neal, then our city administrator, presented the current configuration, saying if we do it this way, both Galen(malecha) and C.C. (linstroth) can keep their seats.

        Not the best rationale, and as it exists, probably illegal, as the line that runs down the highway to connect the two precincts has no residences along it, therefore the two precincts of ward 4 are not actually connected at all!

        Upon comparing election results,these two precincts also have shown very different voting results, so as far as representation, they are not uniformly represented in principle.

        When the League of Women Voters pursued and won a court case against the County in the last redistricting go-round, the county case was chosen over the NF/4th ward because more voters were affected by the county, and there were only enough $$$ for one case.

      • 3.1.3
        David Ludescher says:

        Kiffi,

        It seems to me that, with the exception of Mayor Rossing and perhaps Pownell, none of the council people are particularly concerned with issues outside of the downtown area. We have a significant number of different populations, including the Mayflower area, the commuters in the south and north, the trailer court, the Highway 3 strip, the renters, and the business people who have little or no representation.

        What we don’t need are 6 people pursuing the interests of just the downtown, which is likely to happen if we make everything “at large”.

      • 3.1.4
        kiffi summa says:

        Well, David, I think that is an unfair statement to make; “none of the council people are particularly concerned with issues outside of the downtown area.”

        Let me give you just one example: Councilor Zweifel showed great concern for the people walking south , mostly from the trailer courts, along Highway 3, and when she fought for a safer route… even saying it went beyond pedestrian issues to “social justice”… you continually assailed that project with some very harsh criticism as I recall: a “bobo” project, a “latte” project, you said.
        And yet it was precisely to give equal pedestrian safety to a population that is underserved, or underrepresented.

        You asked my opinion, I gave it; we differ…

      • 3.1.5

        In any case, this issue doesn’t seem like it needs to be another opportunity to dis/agree with the current council. Regardless of how focused on the downtown (or not) they are, it’s clear this change would not improve the representations of the different wards.

        Kiffi — must wards be connected by residences at certain distances? It’s really not such an absurd shape when you look at it on a map: http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/w/Ward_Precinct_11x17_2011.pdf. Just the way the newer parts of our City are planned, the southern part feels completely disconnected from the northern.

  • 4
    Jane McWilliams says:

    For what it is worth, here’s what I wrote in the LWV blog about Tuesday’s discussion:

    Before the council took up discussion of the proposed plan, Councilor Ganey moved that the city consider eliminating city wards. He said these are not needed in a small city which lacks significant blocks of population, and that the lines are arbitrary. He said he and Councilor Erica Zweifel live 2 blocks apart, but represent separate wards. Councilor Zweifel disagreed, saying she enjoyed being a ward representative, focusing her attention on one region of the city. Councilor Nakasian agreed that ward representation fosters relationships. Council Betsey Buckheit supported Ganey’s idea, saying the boundaries are not obvious and that citizens are confused by them. Mayor Rossing noted that Ganey’s suggestion supports the vision stated in the comprehensive plan – that there are not a lot of issues that are unique or local and that most of the votes the council takes affect the whole city.

    City Clerk Little, citing the statute, said the council may propose an amendment to the voters by ordinance: It must be submitted to the charter commission which must review it and approve, reject or revise it. The council then may submit to the voters the original amendment or the substitute version. (https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=410.12 )

    Should the council take this route, the language would be on the November 2012 ballot, but wouldn’t take effect until the 2014 election. Councilor Ganey’s motion was approved with Councilors Ivan Imm, Buckheit, Ganey and Mayor Rossing voting in favor. City Administrator Tim Madigan noted that the motion was to explore the concept – to move forward it require follow up action. In any case, it wouldn’t affect the 2012 wards.

  • 5
    • 5.1
      john george says:

      Griff- The NN editorial presents the difference between geographic representation and ideological representation. Right now, the wards establish geographic representation. With this approach, depending upon the voter turnout, a person could be elected by a relative minority of a geographical area. This person may or may not be a true ideological expresson of the majority of people in that area. IMO, those people who have strong idelogical convictions will probably exert more effort to get a majority of councilors elected to represent that ideology no matter what geographic location they represent. This being the case, the ward system does not necessarily guarantee a plurality of representation.

  • 6
    kiffi summa says:

    I hope that people will use the link here on LG to read the current posting by Councilor Buckheit on her blog, re: wards versus all at-large, and take the opportunity to comment.

    Once again, the NFNews has not given a very well developed report of the meeting’s conclusions, one might even say a misleading representation of the Council’s conclusion.
    The Council voted 4-3 to further explore the idea of gong to all at-large representatives.
    I am surprised the vote was not 5-2, as Councilor Pownell had previously supported the idea of all at-large reps, and in her vote against the notion now did not give much of a reason for her change of philosophy.

    • 6.1
      Kathie Galotti says:

      I read Betsey’s blog and, like most of Betsey’s blog entries, found it well-written and making a very good point. Though I agree that geographic districts aren’t the only way to represent different constituencies, I question HOW ELSE one could do elections to make sure that different voices are heard. I don’t think at-large seats provide any reassurance that, say, we wouldn’t elect all pro-business folks or all college-affiliated folks or what have you.

      At least with wards, there is some guarantee that people who live in different parts of town will have a representative. I take all of Betsey’s points that geography might not define coherent groups of people, but I have to wonder if this isn’t better than nothing.

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