A fundamental assumption of economics is that all human beings act rationally. I wholeheartedly believe this to be true. Each person acts in a way that maximizes his utility (happiness) based on the information he has at the time.
(Similarly, a person never does anything that he doesn't want to do. For example, on Monday you may say to yourself "I don't want to go to work today", but you will still go. The reason: going to work is not an isolated event. Sure, you don't want to go to work, but you also don't want to face the consequences of not going. And since you don't want to get fired more than you don't want to go to work, there you will be. More generally, a person's actions at any given moment in time represent the best possible use of that person's time. That person could not possibly be doing anything better than what he is doing, because if he could, he would.)
Annapolis Aldermen, having made one of the final cuts for classification as human beings, behave rationally as described above. Yesterday's Capital editorialized about the decisions that our aldermen make regarding their employment.
Enough with the preamble. Let's do this.
Our Say:Aldermanic turnover is disrupting city government
By THE CAPITAL EDITORIAL BOARD
Published October 26, 2007
Once again, the Annapolis City Council has an unexpected vacancy. Ward 2 Alderman Mike Christman has ended speculation by announcing his formal resignation because of job constraints involving himself and his wife.
The mayor will soon be scheduling special primary and general elections.
By Wednesday, she must do this. Take a look at the early favorites for the dates she will announce.
We credit Mr. Christman, a promising alderman, with recognizing that a resignation was better than giving his constituents and the city short shrift - he has been unable to return phone calls and has missed the last three council meetings. In the circumstances, he made the responsible decision.
I wonder what comprises The Capital's criteria for a 'promising' alderman. Here is my guess:
Criterion #1: won an election for the first time.
Criterion #2: see above.
But his departure adds to the turnover that already has disrupted city government.
Ward 4 Alderman Wayne Taylor left the City Council after serving only a year to take a well paid job with the new county executive - a position he kept for only a few months. Alderman Josh Cohen and Alderwoman Classie Hoyle were willing to give up their city positions to run for County Council - Mr. Cohen won and left his aldermanic seat.
Here is the problem. Aldermen get paid $12,600 per year. Most, if not all of them, want to move up the political ladder so they can be richer or more powerful, or if you prefer, so they can do more good. I think most people are fine with this. BUT, the city has elections in odd years (2005, 2009, etc.), so for these people to move up, they have to leave their aldermanic seat mid-term.
Solution #1: change the election cycle to be the same as the county, or at least in even years so we share election times with somebody.
Solution #2: pay the aldermen more money so they wouldn't be so concerned with moving on to something else.
Today, two aldermen - Ross Arnett and Sheila Finlayson - are on the council as a result of elections with very low voter turnouts.
Yeah, like 25% low. That's really low.
No wonder turnout for special elections is minimal - city voters are tired of trekking to the polls to replace fickle aldermen.
This is too important of a question to answer with such a declarative quip. Voter turnout is generally low in this country, even in Presidential years. Why this is the case is a fairly major political science issue.
I don't doubt that frustration with fickle aldermen plays a part, but there is certainly more to it. I think a lot of people don't realize how much they are affected by city codes. There are also people who are willing to break laws if they don't like them, so for those people it wouldn't make much sense to waste their time with elections.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am willing to say that people who don't vote are a--holes. People certainly have the right to do what they want, but by not voting and to a lesser extent not educating themselves on the issues, non-voters allow things like Martin O'Malley to happen.
And each of these special elections costs taxpayers $50,000.
It would cost us a lot less if we did the elections in the same year that the county did them, because we rent the voting machines from the county. For the upcoming special election, I believe the council is fast-tracking a bill to use paper ballots, which would be cheaper.
On a related note, how excited are you that $50,000 of your tax money is going to be used for a special election where less than 1000 people are going to vote?
Beyond the financial burden, there is a loss of knowledge and experience. A new alderman, no matter how gifted, is on a learning curve. It takes him or her a while to be able to deal intelligently with critical issues. When the positions keep turning over, the city staff has to spend much more time familiarizing aldermen with the ins and outs of government. And constituents need a scorecard to find the person who can help them with a complaint.
True enough. Turnover cost is very high, no matter what business you are in.
The city cannot prevent aldermen from leaving office before their terms expire. It's up to the candidates themselves to end this disruptive trend.
Wrong. The city can prevent this from happening. The city can give aldermen more money, more power, an assigned legislative assitant, and for goodness' sake, maybe some letterhead so the aldermen can keep in contact with their constituents without having to spend out of pocket cash.
Special elections have been relatively scarce in the city's history because most candidates honored their commitment. Today candidates seem to be ready to serve - until a better opportunity comes along.
Can we blame them? (Answer: No). $12,600, even with the prestige of public office and the obligation so serve the public, is not enough of an incentive to pursuade people to disrupt their family lives or turn down professional opportunities.
There appears to be no shortage of candidates to fill these vacancies - several are already lining up to run for the Ward 2 opening. But who among them is prepared to promise voters he or she will fill out the term? Are the candidates ready to make sacrifices - including turning down better jobs and spending less time with their families?
This is just not true. Unless The Capital knows something that this blog does not know--which is possible but not likely--there are only 2 candidates "lining up" for the Ward 2 opening. The Democrat is Debbie Rosen McKerrow, who lost to Christman; Karen Jennings is running as a Green Party member; and we Republicans haven't even found a candidate.
I would guess that some candidates run because someone asks them to run, and because there is nobody else to do it! This would lead candidates to feel like they are doing their neighbors (or their political party) a favor, and would be a weak motivator to put up with the shenanigans of aldermanic duty, especially when better options arise.
At the end of the day, the candidates are still to blame--but they are not as guilty as The Capital would have us think.
Ward 2 residents need to ask these questions of would-be aldermen. And the same commitment should be sought in all future city elections.
Why would candidates for alderman give any more commitment than the city gives them? Again: $12,600 for a lot of work, no letterhead, no office, no assistant, no parking space (I think), and no way to serve out your term if you want to run for another office. Hey, sign me up!
It's sad that voters have to ask something so obvious, but it is important to the wards and to the city as a whole that elected officials take their commitment seriously.