I have long been in favor of the notion of city council districts in cities of a certain size —although skeptical of the methodology of determining their boundaries.
However, carving a city into parts presents new problems that can truly divide its citizens.
My favoring districts is both for political and policy reasons. So are the reasons for my misgivings.
Running for office at any level takes money, and an at-large campaign in even small cities can be expensive for those candidates willing to run. This can be daunting to all but the wealthiest politician, clearly an un-democratic prospect.
If you look at most at-large cities and their council makeups, more often than not you will find council members’ residences to be clustered in one or two sections of a city. This leaves familiarity with other parts of it to the individual initiative of the office holder or through the representation of activists — individually or in groups — in a particular community advocating for or against a particular issue that affects them.
By reducing the size of the territory politicians need to troll for electors, the costs to campaign obviously go down, theoretically expanding the field of potential candidates.
Likewise, by more narrowly defining the area in which one needs to campaign, a more focused approach to policies can be taken to influence voters.
The same conditions that argue for districts, however, make them problematic in significant ways.
The public’s perceptions of the federal House of Representatives is an example of this conundrum, writ large.
Public dissatisfaction with Congress is well documented. What is equally well documented is the seeming incongruity of the public’s generally favorable response when asked how they feel about their own congressional representatives.
The rationale for this is quite simple and can be applied just as well to local district issues. When it comes to over arching policy decisions that affect the populace as a whole, the body is ineffectual. But, when distilled down to what their local districts want for their own, parochial interests, even if at odds with the greater good, their guy or gal delivers the goods. To do otherwise virtually ensures they will not be re-elected.
Regardless of the office, policy decisions must be made weighing disparate factors and defining priorities. When thinking of an entire city, these decisions, while not easy, are more easily made keeping that in mind when the officeholder’s electoral constituency is the entire city as well.
People get passionate about any number of issues. Fighting for or against a new road or development, keeping parks open, public safety, and the like. What their passion often fails to take into account is what may be best for the city and its residents as a whole.
The challenge for candidates and voters alike in district elections is to remember that occasionally, while their issue may seem to be important or necessary to them, the community as a whole derives greater benefit when their plaints are ignored. If democracy is to survive at any level it’s imperative that the parts work in favor of the whole.
Kirk W. Effinger was born in San Diego and raised in Southern California. He and his family have been residents of San Marcos for the past 30 years. His opinion columns have appeared regularly in the North County Times and, later, the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @kirkeffinger