Short Relief: Portland city government needs more partisanship, not less
Across the pond, for the first time in about 30 years, the United Kingdom has a coalition government.
From 1979 to 1997, the Conservative Party controlled Parliament under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Then, from 1997 to 2010, the Labour Party controlled it under PMs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
In their turn, each of the two major parties used their governing majorities to implement their ideological policies. The Conservatives shrank government and promoted the private sector. Labour promoted the National Health Service and initiated a minimum wage.
The recent parliamentary election produced a “Hung Parliament.” No party received a governing majority. Labour lost its majority and Gordon Brown stepped down. The Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties have formed a coalition government. What sort of bedfellows they will make remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the Liberal Democrats hope to use their new-found influence to change the way that seats in Parliament are allocated. The 650 seats in the House of Commons are defined by geographic county and borough “constituencies.” Members are elected by the “first past the post” method. The way that seats are configured and awarded, elections do not allocate seats according to the relative support that each party receives.
For example, about 10.7 million, or 36 percent, of the 29.6 million Britons who went to the polls voted for Conservative Party candidates. That garnered the Conservative Party 306, or 47 percent, of the seats in the House of Commons. About 8.6 million voted for Labour, giving it 258, or 40 percent, of the seats. About 6.8 million voted for the Liberal Democrats, who only got 57, or 9 percent, of the seats.
The Liberal Democrats want more. They want seats to be allocated to the parties in proportion to the number of their members. They argue that would be more fair and democratic.
Meanwhile, here in Portland, a Charter Commission, composed of Democrats and Green Party members, has issued its preliminary report, and it comes as no surprise that a majority of the 12 commissioners recommended that Portland elect a full-time, nonpartisan mayor using Ranked Choice or Instant Runoff voting.
Some of the commission’s explanations for recommending a popularly elected mayor were Portland’s need for a leader who can speak for the community and unify the City Council, and who can work with the city manager and implement programs responsive to the voters’ wishes.
The explanation for Ranked Choice Voting was the commission’s belief that the mayor should represent the vision and direction of a majority of the electorate, and that Ranked Choice Voting would identify the candidate with the largest amount of public support, and reflect the overall preference of the majority.
But the commission does not seem to have identified the problem with the current structure of our city government before proposing a new one. In its report, the commission observes that the current, largely ceremonial mayor is not sufficient for the complexities and demands of the city. The report does not describe those complexities and demands, nor does it explain how the current mayor is inadequate to meet them.
My recollection is that a big part of the impetus for the Charter Commission was the sense that Portland had been floundering without leadership because of the structure of its government: a council composed of nine supposedly nonpartisan equals who weren’t able to come together to form a majority to address significant issues like the underused waterfront, deteriorating Maine State Pier and mismanaged School Department.
Some people blamed an excess of partisanship for these problems. Maybe having an elected mayor would have made a difference. Maybe that mayor would have run on a platform that laid out her position on these issues so that she could claim a mandate for those positions in her dealings with the council. Maybe the council would have responded constructively.
But another possibility is that Portland is not partisan enough, and that what it really needs is a vigorous multi-party system and a structure that allows those parties to interact constructively. If people are fundamentally tribal, then it may be foolish to pretend otherwise and better to acknowledge that reality and harness it for good.
Parties are an improvement over kinship groups, because they are formed on the basis of shared principles and values instead of the happenstance of birth. Healthy parties give their members a chance to work through issues and resolve their differences as a group. They provide good practice for the task of governing.
The problem with the proposed elected mayor is that it creates a structure and process that avoids the hard work of debate and compromise that people need to engage in as they work through difficult problems. Instead, it manufactures an artificial consensus by requiring voters to rank the candidates in order of preference and then translates that ranking into a mandate for the winning candidate to employ with respect to specific issues.
The risk is that people will not be happy with the mandates that their elected mayor claims.
Maybe Portland, like the UK, should consider proportionate representation. Maybe it should consider a parliamentary-style council in which the party with a governing majority gets to name the mayor. Such a structure might be both legitimate and effective.