Why do our aldermen keep leaving??!! I've heard it asked time, and time again. We have had 3 aldermen leave since the 2005 elections, causing what will probably be $100,000 worth of special elections and months of unrepresented wards.
So why do they leave? We've been over this before, twice, and the answer is simple: money. Our aldermen get paid $12,600. By paying them this much money, we the people are effectively telling the aldermen that we expect them to have another full time job. But I can tell you that being an alderman requires a full time commitment. Heck, being the Ward 1 alderman means you have to deal with the ward 1 residents' association and the historic preservation commission on a daily basis, and there is no amount of money in the world to compensate for that. The aldermen are grossly underpaid for what they are expected to do. Not only do they not have offices or assistants, there isn't even any money in the budget for letterhead!
Yes, the candidates know this before they run. The best AP can figure, there are 2 motives for seeking an aldermanic seat: the 'stepping stone' motive and the 'nothing better to do motive'.
The Stepping Stone Motive
Of the two, this motive provides the strongest and most predictable behaviors. The stepping stone mindset exists in people with political ambition. Even though these people are obviously* worth more than $12,600 per year, they are willing to accept such an unfair salary because they are building a track record for election or appointment to a higher paying (or more prestigious) office in the future. In economic terms, they forgoing current income in favor of making an investment in their human capital, or self-worth, with the expectation of realizing higher future returns on their human capital than they would have received if they didn't do the whole alderman thing.
Some Stepping Stoners* do a lot of work while they are at the local level, and some don't. The ones that don't usually have connections; they know something we don't, and typically know that they are in line for some type of appointment. The others tend to do wild things, perhaps apologizing for slavery or banning plastic bags, to increase their publicity. They are more likely to neglect things that actually affect their ward, and try to do 'big' things that may or may not be beneficial, but certainly will be controversial.
Famous Stepping Stoners: Wayne Taylor, Josh Cohen, and probably the following: Sam Shropshire, Classie Hoyle, Dave Cordle.
*(Stepping Stoners copyright Annapolis Politics, 2007.)
The Nothing Better To Do Motive
The 'nothing better to do' motive is actually the less cynical, more small-townish motive to run for office. Perhaps these candidates are retired, or perhaps they have a regular job with a lot of flexibility--in any case, they care enough about the issues and determine that they have enough time to run for office. The key is that running for office does not necessarily play a significant role in the candidates long term career path.
The fact that you have nothing better to do is not a strong incentive to do anything, and herein lies the problem. If something happens in the life of a NBTDC (Nothing Better To Do Candidate), and that person has to make a choice between being an alderman or anything else, they are much more likely to choose family, career, etc. Can we blame them...I would say that most of us would do the same thing. Your choices are (1) to be happier, richer, or more involved with your family, or (2) continue to make $12,600 as an alderman and get scrutinized all the time by annoying blogs like this one. It's a non-decision, really. Every one in a while you'll get a person who is so committed to their office that they will say on until the next cycle, but there is really no incentive to do so.
Famous NBTDC's: Mike Christman, Ross Arnett, Dick Isreal**.
(Dick Israel is retired and cares about the issues, so he fits into the NBTDC mold, but I have heard rumors that even he wants to run for mayor, which means he too is a bit of a Stepping Stoner. Ross Arnett is a retired economist, and Mike Christman made the choice to be happier.)
So what do we do to solve this? Pay the city council more money, give them offices, assistants, and letterhead, and change the charter to allow the council to elect a city manager that would preside over the operations of the city departments, leaving the mayor to do the figurehead activities. Then maybe more qualified candidates would want to be aldermen.