Sunday, July 02, 2006

Unrepresentative Government

U.S. Constitution

For several pressing reasons, citizens of Portsmouth recently proposed that the terms for city council members be reduced from four to two years. Veteran community activist Richard Noel wrote to the Portsmouth City Council on 26 June 2006, “On behalf of the Concerned Citizens Group, I am writing to request that City Council place a City Charter Amendment on the upcoming November 2006 ballot that would change ‘SECTION 3 – POWERS, ELECTION, TERM, VACANCIES’ in order that council member terms of office be changed back to two years from the current four year term.” Portsmouth City Council members had been elected for two-year terms up until 1985, when that provision was changed by charter amendment.

It is important to note that the change the Concerned Citizens are proposing would affect only the six council members, not the Mayor (chief executive officer), the city solicitor (the chief legal officer), and the other city officials. Under the Concerned Citizens proposal, those officials would continue to serve four-year terms.

Historical Background

Some historical background is helpful to understand the reasons for the Concerned Citizens’ proposal. You can’t understand the structure of local government, including the Portsmouth City Council, without understanding the structure of state government, and you can’t understand the structure of state government without understanding the structure of federal government because what was decided at the federal level influenced what was decided at the state level, and what was decided at the state level influenced what was decided at the local level, in Portsmouth.

The Founding Fathers of our nation intended that the U.S. House of Representatives would be “the people’s house,” the body of the federal government that would be directly elected by, and therefore most accountable to, the people. It was to be the most representative and the most accountable body of the federal government. In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton or Madison wrote, “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration [the House of Representatives] should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”

The best way they could think of to insure that the House of Representatives would remain “the people’s house,” was frequent elections. “Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured (emphasis added),” they wrote in number 52 of the Federalist Papers. In regard to frequent elections, they quoted, in number 53, the proverb that held “that where annual elections end, tyranny begins.” But that proverb was an old one, and conditions had presumably changed. Elections every year were impractical when many people spread over large areas were involved. Somewhat reluctantly, the Founding Fathers decided that the maximum term for a representative should be two years. Elections would take place biennially. “All these considerations taken together warrant us in affirming, that biennial elections will be as useful to the affairs of the public as we have seen that they will be safe to the liberty of the people.”
In the U.S. Constitution, Article I deals with congress, suggesting how important the legislative branch was in the eyes of the Founding Fathers. American democracy begins with and is rooted in the legislative branch, and especially in the House of Representatives, the members of which were elected directly by the voters in the states. The direct vote helped to insure that the House of Representatives remained responsive to the people’s will, and the stipulation that the vote would take place every two years further strengthened the people’s control of the House.

When Ohio designed its state government, it closely followed the federal model, with a General Assembly that consisted of a House of Representatives and a Senate. Following the federal model, terms for the Ohio House, the “people’s house,” were two years.

Local Government

Most local governments in Ohio usually followed the state model. In local governments, the legislative body, the counterpart to a House of Representatives, is the city council. Following the House of Representatives example, two-year terms were the general rule for city councils. But a number of cities and towns have shifted to a mixture of two-terms for ward representatives and four-year terms for at-large council members; other communities have shifted to a four-year term for all council members. The Columbus City Council has four-year terms, but the city councils of Cleveland and Cincinnati retain two-year terms. While there are exceptions, generally smaller communities are more likely to have four-year terms for city council, the larger ones two-year terms. Why the difference?

A possible explanation is that larger urban areas with a history of municipal corruption and machine politics see two-year terms as a way of removing the bad apples before they can do their worst. Cities and towns that have been plagued by corruption and that distrust politicians as a class want city councils to be on the short leash that two-year terms represent. A clique or political machine would more likely arise and persist in a city where members of city council had four rather than two years in which to plot and scheme.

Communities that don’t have a history of crooked politics don’t want to go through the trouble of having elections every two years. But large cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati may have learned that biennial elections are worth the trouble because they make the city council accountable every two years. They have learned from experience that at least some politicians are not to be trusted. The same thing that makes four-year terms seem sensible in some communities makes them seem unwise in others. Communities with honest politicians and with little or no corruption think four-year terms are more practical; cities with dishonest politicians and a history of corruption think four-year terms are asking for trouble.

Checks and Balances

The Founding Fathers established three branches of government, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, which were supposed to serve as checks and balances on each other. The counterparts of those three branches of government are discernable in local government in the city council (legislative), the mayor or city manager (executive), and the city solicitor and city courts (judiciary). Unfortunately, at the local level, too often the three branches of government, rather than checking and balancing each other, are in cahoots, forming a tyranny that represses and exploits the public they are supposed to be serving. If you want to see an example of the kind of tyranny our Founding Fathers were afraid of, just look at Portsmouth where the city council, the mayor, the city solicitor, the city clerk have worked secretly, like a gang of safe-crackers, to rob the people. The Marting robbery is the most recent and notorious example of their handiwork, but it is only one of many jobs they have pulled.

They will resist any attempt to shackle their activities, such as limiting city council terms to two years, with the same kind of campaign they waged after the Marting deal was nullified by the courts.

Council president Baughman

Just as Mayor Bauer predicted chaos would reign if he was recalled from office, and just as council woman Carol Caudill said “God help the city of Portsmouth” after she was recalled, the present city government has already begun claiming chaos will reign if the city council returns to the two-year term. Howard Baughman, the president of the city council, has already said that council members could not possibly learn to understand budgets in two years. Don’t believe it for a minute. The real reason Baughman and others will furiously oppose the two-year term is that two-year terms will loosen the grip of the lawyers and developers who currently control the city through the city council. It will be a little harder for the unelected few who control the city council if its members have to face the voters more frequently. The words of the Founding Fathers are worth repeating: “Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.”

Municipal Tyranny

What the Founding Fathers feared most was the “tyranny” and abuse of power by those in control of the government. To those who live in honest and peaceful communities, the notion of “tyranny” seems antiquated. But tyranny is still alive anywhere that corrupt individuals, either in elective office or in appointed positions, conspire to deprive the people of their rights and liberties.

Portsmouth is one of those cities where tyranny still rules and where the people need whatever protection is afforded by two-year terms for council members. The unhappy history of the city since the change to four-year terms in 1985 underscores this point. Portsmouth’s elected government has too often been the pawn of an unelected, shadow government, the chief vehicle of which is the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership. In the absence of two-year terms, frustrated citizens have had to resort to the recall provisions in the city charter. Two-year terms for council members are not going to work miracles or eliminate Portsmouth’s shadow government, but they will weaken the grip of the tyranny and make recalls less likely.

Portsmouth has one of the highest per capita crime rates of all Ohio cities, but politicians, unlike prostitutes and drug-dealers, do not have the law breathing down their neck. On the contrary, the police chief is out to protect the city council and other elected officials from being recalled. At one city council meeting, he called those trying to recall elected officials as “domestic terrorists,” and he mentioned the extraordinary efforts the police department had made in investigating the recall effort in the Second Ward, but not without also apologizing to other council members facing recalls for not having been able to do the same for them.

Honest capable people in public office have no reason to object to two-year terms, because they can be assured of reelection if they do a good job. It’s the dishonest council members, and especially those who have been appointed rather than elected, who want the four-year terms to continue. Four-year terms for city council members help perpetuate the political machine that controls Portsmouth on behalf of the SOGP.

Learning Curves, Chaos and Dummies

In responding to the request from the Concerned Citizens to put the two-year proposal on next November’s ballot, Baughman replied at the June 25th city council meeting, “There's a learning curve when you become a city councilman.” That Baughman could not come up with a better defense of four-year terms than “learning curves” shows what shaky ground he stands on. The argument that it takes council
members more than two years to understand budgets is absurd. The city charter gives the Mayor and the Auditor primary responsibility for the budget, and since they would continue to serve four year terms, the “learning curve” argument for council members is bogus. Given their learning curves, some council members could serve twenty years and not understand the budget, because some people have a better eye for figures than a head for figures.

The only other defense beside “learning curves” Baughman offered against two-year terms was that “It would just be constant turmoil and turnover every two years.” Though all council members would run for election at the same time, it is unlikely that they would all be defeated. And if they were, that might be the best thing for the city.

If biennial elections bring constant turmoil, how have the U.S. House of Representatives, the Ohio House of Representatives, and the city councils of many cities in Ohio managed to survive for as long as they have? Where is the two-term related turmoil in Alliance, Amherst, Athens, Blue Ash, Chillicothe, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Cuyahoga Falls, Lorrain, North Royalton, Norwood, Parma, Silverton, Warren, Wilmington, Wyoming, etc? There has been a lot of turmoil in the Portsmouth City Council in the past twenty-five years and much of it has been the result of four-year terms and the recalls that would not likely have taken place if council members had faced the electorate every two years.


What follows is a summary of the reasons the Concerned Citizens are calling for a return to two-year terms of council members.

1. The most pressing reason is that two-year terms will make council members more accountable to the voters. The voters should not have to wait four years to express their preferences via the ballot box. Four-year terms have not resulted in more honest and efficient city government. Four-year terms for council members, which replaced two-year terms in 1985, have made things worse, not better.

2. Reducing the terms of council members from four- to two-year terms will reduce the need for and justification of recall elections. The city charter permits the recall of council members, but the charter stipulates that the recall process cannot begin until the elected official in question has served six months in office. With only eighteen months to go before another election, frustrated voters are more likely to concentrate on defeating a controversial council member at the polls rather than going through the complicated and risky recall procedure. I say risky because Portsmouth police chief Horner has labeled the organizers of recent recall attempts as “domestic terrorists,” and one of the recall candidates, Native-American Russell Cooper, was arrested for alleged “irregularities” on his petitions. The only alternative voters have when the object of their ire has forty-two months left on his term is to resort to the recall process, and risk being harassed and even arrested. When a council member has eighteen or less months to go, campaigning to defeat him in the next election would be the most effective way to remove him or her.

3. Putting council members in office for four years is unwise because, as honest and conscientious as they may be, and as dishonest and underhanded as they have too often been, they are generally less well-educated and less financially secure and for various reasons more likely not to finish their term; and they are twice as likely not to finish a four-year term as they are a two-year term. Under the city charter rules, something as simple as moving out of the ward they represent disqualifies council members from continuing in office. For an example of unadulterated unrepresentative government, look no further than the First Ward. We recently saw a dishonest councilman, Timothy Loper, move from the First Ward to the Sixth Ward and then, with the connivance of the city solicitor, he not only did not resign but ran for another term as First Ward councilman! Because of these electoral shenanigans in the First Ward, where the council appointed a local lawyer, Michael Mearan, to replace Timothy Loper, who first got on the council as a result of a recall election, those of us who live in the First Ward have a right to revive the famous slogan of the American Revolution, “No Taxation without Representation.”

4. The four-year term for city council members undermines representative government because too many members first take a seat on the city council as a result of an appointment rather than an election. The city charter calls for the city council to appoint replacements when a vacancy occurs. If vacancies were a rare occurrence, this would not be much of a problem. But given the frequency of vacancies, the appointment power of the city council is a serious problem, a problem made even worse by four-year terms. The current president of council, Baughman, was originally an appointee. So is current Fourth Ward councilman Albrecht, and so is First Ward councilman Michael Mearan. They were all first appointed rather than elected. It is possible that within the foreseeable future the majority of city council will have been originally appointed rather than elected to office.

Unelected First Ward councilman

5. Council President Baughman’s argument that two-year terms for council members will bring chaos to city government is bogus and hides the real reason he and others will do everything they can to prevent a return to biennial elections: they want to maintain the corrupt status quo.