Columnist Ray La Raja: Large Town Council has many problems

Saturday, April 22, 2017

As political scientists who study political institutions, we write to advise strongly against a large Town Council for the new charter in Amherst.

In our view, a mayoral form of government with a seven- to nine-member council would work best, given the diversity of the town, the complexity of issues and budgetary constraints.

Paradoxically, a 60-member Town Council would likely be less representative than a much smaller council and risks several potential problems for a democratic system. Here are a few:

Very weak accountability — Replacing a large Town Meeting with a large Town Council will not solve the structural challenges a large representative assembly poses.

Having a large Town Council will provide relative anonymity for its members, with the result that most residents will not know who represents them and who to hold accountable for political decisions — just like Town Meeting.

Moreover, compared to a small council, members of a large Town Council will have fewer incentives to campaign for votes, communicate with, or respond to constituents because there is little competition for seats in a large legislature, particularly in a small town. A large Town Council presents no improvement on this front, as residents would still easily be able to win a seat by asking friends and neighbors to vote for them.

Voter turnout — Large candidate rosters confuse voters, especially in the absence of campaigns. Voters will vote for mayor but many will not choose candidates for a large Town Council because they do not know who they are, since candidates will find it unnecessary to campaign given the modest vote share they would require to win a seat.

Representational skew — People who run for the position of town councilor will have two resources: time and money. This will skew the council toward the wealthier, older and longtime residents of the town. To be sure, it is true that a smaller town council might also have a similar skew.

However, by discouraging voter participation in the ways outlined above, a large Town Council creates the same environment of insider politics that Town Meeting has fostered for so long.

Like Town Meeting, a large Town Council tends to discourage or minimize the voices of those who are not already part of the local establishment because voting is based primarily on prior relationships rather than on ideas or coherent platforms that mobilize a broader electorate who do not necessarily know the candidates personally.

If the reason for having a larger legislature is to improve representation, then it makes no sense to go in this direction given the other problems we outline here.

Significant governing inefficiencies — Large councils are unwieldy and require significant amounts of time to structure and organize.

Moreover, genuine deliberation is highly challenging when the legislature is so large, unless members meet very frequently. Typically, such chambers become places to make speeches rather than deliberate face-to-face.

Agenda-setting problems — It is more difficult for a large legislature to put forth a governing agenda when it faces significant organizing costs.

This gives greater influence to other agenda-setters, including the mayor, the media, and large interest groups such as the university and colleges.

One way to offset this dilemma is to give the legislative leader highly concentrated power. However, this strategy seems to defy the promise of greater representation of interests through a large representative body.

Power flows to other actors — A larger legislature will be less competent to challenge executive authority in productive ways, particularly if the executive is adept at “divide-and-conquer” strategies.

Moreover, in large legislatures, members have weak incentives to do the work of gathering information and making informed decisions. The time commitments to become knowledgeable are significant for any individual.

It may seem irrational to spend so much time understanding issues when one has 1/60 power in making decisions. For this reason, many members will seek information, knowledge and preferences of other political actors.

Thus, paradoxically, members end up relying more on information from the executive, administrative staff, legislative leaders, lobbyists, and the media in making decisions, rather than their own informed judgments.

Ray La Raja, of Amherst, is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, specializing in American politics. He is a former member of Amherst Town meeting. Wouter van Erve is a graduate student in political science at UMass who is writing a dissertation comparing town meeting and mayor/city council forms of government in New England. The column also was signed by Scott Blinder, Charli Carpenter, Paul Collins, Lauren McCarthy, Paul Musgrave, M.J. Peterson, Jesse Rhodes, Meredith Rolfe, Brian Schaffner and Lisa Solowiej, all faculty members at UMass.