Saturday, October 27, 2007

Rational Behavior Of Aldermen

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.

8 comments:

PAUL FOER said...

Brian, While you make many good points about Aldermanic issues, you also wrote "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."
That does come across as arrogant,and worse, not only for calling non-voters a--holes, but by saying they "allow things like Martin O'Malley to happen." I suppose one could also "blame" the voters whose majority votes did elect O'Malley. You also refer to our Governor as a "thing" and in another post referred to him as "O'Slimey." By demonizing the Governor and insulting everyone who voted for him, you are not only displaying arrogance, but you ignore the irony. You display contempt for voters as well. On the one hand, you admonish non-voters, but then you slam voters who supported a candidate you obviously don't like. Therefore, only those who vote for the candidate you prefer are acceptable, and everyone else is either an a--hole or uneducated. You apparently believe that if someone were educated, they would obviously not vote for O'Malley.
May I remind you of all the apparent voter fraud in the last presidential election, how the "winner" lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote by just one, with many unanswered questions about goings on in Florida, Ohio and other states. Who is to "blame" in that case? Educated voters? Uneducated voters? Non-voters?
Finally, I can tell you with certainty, that it takes courage and conviction to run for office. It takes time, energy, money and work and the biggest disappointment is to do all that to campaign and find that most people do not care or do not vote. Does that make them a--holes? Whatever it makes them , if your goal is to encourage people to vote, calling them a--holes will certainly not help. Thanks--and keep up the good work you do, with the exception of this particular demonization.

PAUL FOER said...

Brian, While you make many good points about Aldermanic issues, you also wrote "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."
That does come across as arrogant,and worse, not only for calling non-voters a--holes, but by saying they "allow things like Martin O'Malley to happen." I suppose one could also "blame" the voters whose majority votes did elect O'Malley. You also refer to our Governor as a "thing" and in another post referred to him as "O'Slimey." By demonizing the Governor and insulting everyone who voted for him, you are not only displaying arrogance, but you ignore the irony. You display contempt for voters as well. On the one hand, you admonish non-voters, but then you slam voters who supported a candidate you obviously don't like. Therefore, only those who vote for the candidate you prefer are acceptable, and everyone else is either an a--hole or uneducated. You apparently believe that if someone were educated, they would obviously not vote for O'Malley.
May I remind you of all the apparent voter fraud in the last presidential election, how the "winner" lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote by just one, with many unanswered questions about goings on in Florida, Ohio and other states. Who is to "blame" in that case? Educated voters? Uneducated voters? Non-voters?
Finally, I can tell you with certainty, that it takes courage and conviction to run for office. It takes time, energy, money and work and the biggest disappointment is to do all that to campaign and find that most people do not care or do not vote. Does that make them a--holes? Whatever it makes them , if your goal is to encourage people to vote, calling them a--holes will certainly not help. Thanks--and keep up the good work you do, with the exception of this particular demonization.

Brian Gill said...

A brief response:

1. "Allowing things" is just a short way to say "allowing the election of a person such as". My fingers were tired.

2. I did a search on my blog for "O'Slimey" and it returned no results. I would take credit for such a thing were I to have said it, but you have me confused with somebody else.

3. If you are like me, you have a hard time believing that Martin O'Malley would be a better governor than
Ehrlich based on their comparative records. He has a record of mismanagement of money and little real accomplishment. So yes, I am implying that if voters were more educated, they would not have voted for O'Malley. For someone who believes in conservative principles, this is one explanatory component of why people vote for liberals. If, as you suggest, voters are educated and would support higher taxes via O'Malley rather than the RELATIVE fiscal conservatism of Ehrlich, then your argument is correct. I hold the more cynical belief that many people voted for O'Malley based on misinformation, or because voting for a Democrat is what they 'should' do.

4. Based on the reasoning in #3, electing O'Malley can be described (by O'Malley's detractors) as a statiscal anomoly. Smaller sample sizes allow statistcal anomolies. Therefore, smaller sample sizes (low voter turnout resulting from people not voting) helped to elect Martin O'Malley.

5. Your anecdote about the federal elction is an indictment of the elctoral college and of voter ID requirements, but has nothing to do with the irony of what I am saying. Of the following: not voting, undeducated voting, and educated voting for the canddiate that is most in line with your beliefs, not voting is the worst, uneducating voting is much better, and proper edcuated voting is the best, whether or not you vote for the candidate I like or not. Like I said, I just have a hard time believing that the entirety of the O'Malley voters voted for him based on an educated belief that he would be better than Ehrlich.

Brian Gill said...

That is an email from another person that was reprinted.

Anonymous said...

This debate is interesting, insomuch as watching a married couple fight is interesting. Democrats and Republicans seem to live lives that are virtually indistinguishable from one another and differ only by ideology.

As to the voting/O'Mally is a sleaze argument, I really don't have an opinion. But Paul, I've got to be honest. You seem to be an astute observer of politics, so I find it difficult to believe that you actually buy into the inherent nobility of political candidates. Although I'm sure that some run for office to serve the greater good, I am equally certain that the VAST MAJORITY do so to feather their own nests in one way or another...wether they do it for the power, the amazing number of perks, or to benefit from the legalized bribery that nourishes the lobbying industry, it ain't too bad to be an elected official.

And yes, that may be cynical, but it doesn't make it any less true.

Tim

Anonymous said...

Whether. Dammit.

Brian Gill said...

Republicans are more handsome than democrats...that is the other distinguishing characteristic!

Anonymous said...

Take the difference between $50k off-year election and election year cost. Divvy amongst the alderman for a salary increase.