Jan 18, 2012 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Power corrupts, they say, and absolute power, well, for the city and county it tends to foster folks fussing with each other, digging themselves into the trench warfare of legislated procedure. In the all-Democrat city government the mayor times her veto of a Common Council move intruding on the process of the Planning Commission so that the folks who passed it will not all be voting when the opportunity to override occurs. On the side lines, former Democratic councilors articulate the relief they felt at being able to leave decisions to commissioners who really understood the vagaries of development. In the Republican dominated county, the executive is at odds with the legislature, the party leadership and other GOP elected officials. Most recently, the issue is a family affair.
Ironically, the quandary in the county may help to keep things honest, or at least shine some light on questionable behavior, although the accusations seem out of proportion to the actions. In the city, however, firefighter Keith Herring and his brother Minister Mark Muhammad are working for the creation of a United Neighbors Common Council — the UNCommon Council. Their goal is to create web and print newsletters to identify problems on the South Side, and recruit small groups to tackle them. The concept has already logged $10,000 from a Case Foundation competition to foster citizen engagement in dialog and action. One target is the conversion of an abandoned building on the 1500 block of South Avenue into a theater.
Who says democracy has to be efficient?
“The problem is the winner take all system,” Green Party coordinator Howie Hawkins says of the local conundrum of citizen representation. Democrats may have 60 percent of voter registration, but 100 percent of decision making, he points out. Republicans may have 30 percent, but zero access to the decisions. “Greens may be second in voter preference in the city, right now, but have no access either.” He advocates a proportional representation system, with seats allotted by percentage of votes, like the one in Cambridge, Mass., which would give meaning to a multi-party ballot. He also advocates a larger city council. “In Germany,” he notes, “a city the size of Syracuse would have 50 seats. In England, Coventry, with a population of 315,710, has 54. Doncaster, with 290,600, has 63.”
Hawkins says efforts over the years locally to reduce the number of representatives on both Common Council and County Legislature have been attributed to drives to make those bodies more efficient. But as the late Maxwell Professor Warner Bloomberg was fond of saying, “The most efficient society may not be one you would be happy living in.”
How about neighborhood assemblies with power?
The local Greens have called for a Common Council with 20 seats, the way it used to be, with one for each of the city’s 19 wards and one for a council president. They also want to see neighborhood assemblies with City Charter authority hold councilors accountable for their votes. A drive could be launched to establish the neighborhood assemblies, which would select members for a shadow council, according to Hawkins, but the organizing efforts required might prove prohibitively huge. Motivation for such an effort, however, might be found in reflection that the model Syracuse adopted from Rochester for creation of the TNT program contained neighborhood assemblies with budget power for dealing with neighborhood issues, an element of the model left out of the local action plan.
Three-time New York Press Association Writer of the Year, Walt Shepperd is a weekly columnist with The Eagle.