Friday, August 31, 2007

Lord of the Rings - Bellingham Style

This Herald Guest editorial [Circa December 2004] originally had the longish title of "Explosive Growth, Funding Gaps & Complexity of Issues Suggest Changes in City Charter May Be In Order to Insure Professional Management and Public Accountability". Whew, did I write that?

During this election year, with seven candidates for Mayor - now reduced to the two Dan's - it seems timely to revisit these concepts, and update them to reflect what is transpired since 2004, plus maybe consider a few new ideas.
"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" – Lord Acton
Recently, two very popular movies based on JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ have emerged, with a third sequel* to follow that is widely anticipated. These tales tell of a quest to destroy a ring, which possesses a special power and curse. The curse is the insatiable need to control the resources and wills of others. Of course, the only power any individual -or nation- has is the exercise of free will.

Tolkien believed that those possessing the most power are the ones most vulnerable to corruption – sometimes through deceptive appeals to their best intentions. As the powerful wizard Gandalf explains to Frodo, "The way of the Ring to my heart is by pity. Pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!"

What do these fascinating tales have to do with reality, particularly here in idyllic Bellingham? Is it possible that power and its irresistible attraction are not limited to such imaginary tales, or even to the real halls of power in Washington, D.C. and other world capitols? Doesn’t history show that an over-concentration of power can sometimes turn into something unintended and even harmful to a society?

The driving force toward the acquisition of power is rooted in human nature itself, with all its good and not-so-good characteristics. Civilized society has long sought to find methods by which to protect itself against the extremes of tyranny and chaos. Our national Constitution is a shining example of a structure capable of this protection. But, even a strong structure -such the Constitution- is not immune to attack and gradual weakening from unexpected directions and methods. No substitute exists for the constant vigilance needed to recognize and repair any weaknesses that develop to insure our Constitution maintains its protective strength as was intended.

Our City Charter represents another example of such a structure, developed in an honest attempt to set fair and predictable guidelines for the elected governance of our community. Adopted over thirty years ago, the Charter has served us fairly well over that time. Now, with explosive growth happening, and with it the pressure of increased reliance on essential city services, it may be time to revisit our Charter to see if it can be strengthened to serve us even better in the 21st Century. Since our national Constitution, itself, has been amended periodically and changes are constantly being made to the myriad of laws that govern us, examining our City Charter again with a critical eye would certainly seem to be in order.

Some ideas for our community to think about might include these:

• Consider a strong Council/City Manager form of government. This would guarantee more weight is given to professional competence in the selection of the administrator, plus insure more accountability to the Council.
An appointed City Manager would be hired under a renewable term contract.
A ceremonial Mayor could still be elected separately, or from within the Council.

• Consider changing the important Finance Director position from an elected office to an appointed position, based solely on professional qualifications. This would also insure more direct accountability to the City Manager and Council.
Bellingham is unique in Washington as the only city that elects its Finance Director. [Note #1]

• Consider making all City Council positions elected four-year terms.
Currently, the At-Large position is elected for two years, creating a double election burden and steeper entry hurdle for this position.

• Consider adding two, additional four-year At-Large Council positions to give broader representation to our growing community.
No more than two members could live in any Ward.

• Consider imposing term limits on all local elected officials, say two or three consecutive terms.
This would limit the power of incumbency and encourage more people to become actively engaged in local government.

• Consider miscellaneous changes like establishing an office of Community Ombudsman, revising provisions for public initiatives and referenda and allowing instant runoff voting. [Note #2]

While changes such as the ones mentioned above are not universal panacea, they would likely result in a stronger overall charter for Bellingham’s future.
Let’s have a healthy discussion on this issue, shall we?
Since the above Guest editorial appeared, some things have happened!
Here's a synopsis:

* The sequel, "Return of the King", was a terrific ending for this exciting trilogy, despite the use of the word 'King'.

Note #1: A Ballot measure was approved to make the Finance Director an appointed one, based upon professional, not political, qualifications! For the first time, we are recruiting FD candidates from which our next Mayor will appoint one, with Council confirmation.
Because our next Mayor will take office on November 27, his appointed -and confirmed- Finance Director will take office on January 1, 2008.

Note #2: The Council, itself, has revised the Charter regarding the provisions for public initiatives and referenda for clarity.

Additionally, as reported in my 7/31/07 blog, the Council approved:

1. A Resolution stating that Council policy will be to require holding a public hearing on the subject of Charter Review, at least once every five years, although it could happen more freqeuntly.
Council approved this Resolution, 4-3. Still a sticky wicket!

2. Language appropriate for a ballot measure that would consider changing Charter language to gender neutral.
Council approved this idea for the ballot this year, 7-0.

3. Information is to be brought forward for Council consideration concerning a proposed Code of Ethics covering elected City Council members and, possibly, other elected officials. This will become a topic of deliberation and determination of what further action might be taken.
Council approved this idea, 7-0

All three items respond positively to different aspects of Charter issues, but none will occur without further Council or public deliberations and/or appropriate voting. Each of these proposed changes represent small, but significant departures from past practice, that should be seen as the cautious first steps that could enable future Charter reviews and revisions to occur more regularly and easily.
What's next?

That depends on what action the current Council may take before year-end, and what the voters decide on the gender neutral ballot measure, but also on what the 2008 -and future- Councils decide to do.
Ultimately, whatever citizens want ought to be formally considered.

One idea I like is that of considering Instant Run-Off Voting [IRV] for City elections, because it would allow voters to choose multiple candidates in an order of preference. This could save time and money in selecting elected officials in the future. Some cities and other jurisdictions are already using this voting method already, so good information on their experience should be available for study and consideration here.

Another idea, is the concept of the Council being able to confirm the Mayor's appointment of all Department Heads, just like the procedures in place now for the Finance Director, the City Attorney, and Hearing Examiner.
All of these Department Head positions, except the Library Director, are important ones that are now made solely by the Mayor, as 'at will' employees. That means they can be hired -and fired- at any time and for any reason.
To me, that seems like excessive power for any one individual to wield!

Maybe 'at will' firings should also be subject to confirmation by the Council?
If some version of this concept were considered, it ought to be thought of in the same way as would a City Manager, or Chief Administrative Officer, either of whom could be appointed by the Mayor and/or Council for a specific contract term.
Once hired, this person would be secure for that period of time, as long as their performance was satisfactory.
A CAO or Deputy Mayor would be under the day-to-day supervision of the Mayor, as is the case now.

Some people may think that the following section needs modification to mean candidates for City elected office need to live here more than one year. What do you think?
City of Bellingham Charter
2.05 Eligibility To Hold Elective Office

No person shall be eligible to hold elective office unless he is a registered voter of the City and a resident of the City for one year next preceding his election. Residence and voting within the limits of any territory which has been included in, annexed to, or consolidated with the City is construed to have been residence within the City.

No City elected officer shall hold any other office or employment within the City government.
Whether some of the concepts mentioned above are brought forward as ballot measures, or otherwise, depends upon the results of [future] Council's periodic reviews of the Charter and/or State mandated changes. At those times, other ideas might also be considered.

Whatever might be decided about Charter Review in the future, the main determinant should be responding to the needs of the times. If either abuse -or excessive non-use- of legal power or authority is ever detected, some change is probably needed. It is in everyone's best interest to keep a close watch on things political, and not be overly eager, or fearful, of making changes that are prudent.

Since our only certainty is uncertainty itself, and some change is always inevitable, let's welcome the chance to revisit our Charter from to time, as an opportunity and not as a problem!

Our Founding Father, George Washington, voluntarily gave up the opportunity to become America's 'King for life' at the end his second term as our nation's first President. For this reason, King George of England thought him 'the greatest person in the world!'

A man of great character, but few words, Washington is credited with saying; "Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."

George Washington -our namesake- was so right!