Friday, January 04, 2008

City Council: District or At Large?

Commenters to my post about whether our elected executive is vested with sufficient authority jumped ahead to the post I had in mind for today: that is, the issue of whether Council should be entirely at large, entirely district-based, or some combination thereof.

The traditional criticism of a district-based legislature is that spending tends to be out-of-control in such systems. This study, for instance, purports to demonstrate that governments run by ward-based elected representatives have higher debt, spending, and taxes than governments with at-large representatives. Those who favor a district-based approach, though, argue that such a system ensures that minority communities have a voice in the legislature, and also permits candidates to win elections without the larger warchest needed in an at-large system.

There's an interesting juxtaposition with respect to our current situation, I think. On the one hand, the Charter committee lauds as one of its achievements the end of the ward system back in the 1920's. Until 1957, though, Council was elected using a proportional representation system, whereby voters ranked their preferences and the results were calculated accordingly. The pure at-large system has been in place for the past fifty years.

Here's the juxtaposition: Hamilton County Municipal Court. The judges aren't elected by the entire county; instead, each judge is elected from one of seven districts. I couldn't find a history of our municipal courts anywhere, but it's my understanding that the system is in place because of a lawsuit filed to ensure that minority communities could get judges elected, and that at one time, all of the judges were elected as Common Pleas judges are, by the entire county. (If I'm wrong, please point this out, preferably politely, in the comments.)

So why is the district-based system good for municipal court but bad for city government? Would a mixed system (at-large and district representatives) ensure that spending doesn't go crazy?

Your thoughts?

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