Short Relief: Another week, another election, more of the same old government

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It seems like every time I turn around there is another election.

This week, the citizens of Portland are going to the polls for the second time in a month, to elect members of a Charter Commission to examine Portland’s constitution and structure of government. Last time, it was to review and approve the school budget.

Neither contest inspired much campaigning. Turnout for the school budget vote was dismal. That vote was required by the state’s new school funding law. The Charter Commission election is prompted by dissatisfaction with the performance of the city’s government.

The city seems to be incapable of making politically unpopular, but necessary decisions. It hasn’t been able to rein in its school budget or close schools in spite of the fact that enrollment has declined precipitously. It managed to screw up the process of finding a company to renovate the Maine State Pier so that it lost both bidders and is stuck with a pier that is falling into the bay.

Portland’s current charter is pretty basic. It creates a weak mayor-council-manager form of municipal government. It defines the City Council, its makeup, powers and decision-making procedures. The council is made up of five district and four at-large councilors who are elected to staggered terms in nonpartisan elections.

The council acts by ordinance, order, or resolution passed by a simple majority of five councilors. Its major responsibilities are to pass a budget and choose the city manager. It sets policies that guide the manager.

The manager chooses department heads subject to council confirmation. He controls the city’s departments. Through those departments, he enforces laws and ordinances. He keeps the council informed of developments, and prepares the budget.

Besides those basic provisions, the charter sets a few limits. It limits the amount of money that the city can spend and the amount of debt that it can incur without voter approval.

It seems like a pretty workable model. So why hasn’t it performed better?

I have never liked the non-partisan election provision. It always seemed to me to be unrealistic. People are social, and political, by nature. It’s hypocritical to deny it.

The idea behind non-partisan elections is that parties are bad because they deny individuality, force compromise and lead to corruption. Non-partisan elections foster weaker parties because being affiliated with a party is less necessary to getting elected. They produce elected officials who are less beholden to a party.

However, promoting individuality and suppressing compromise is not necessarily the best prescription for democratic government. Without strong parties, there is less opportunity for aspiring politicians to develop their positions on issues, to learn how to compromise and form the alliances necessary to act in a deliberative body. (It’s a little late to start that effort once you get elected.)

As a result, even in a one-party town as homogeneous as Portland, we elect councilors whose individualism inhibits their ability to work together. When you add to that the staggered terms and resulting disruption in make-up of the council, it becomes difficult to sustain a governing majority, especially with respect to any issue of consequence.

Moreover, without a meaningful mayor, there is no one person responsible for the welfare of the city as a whole, who might counteract the fractious nature of the council. At best there are four, the at-large members of the council. But four chiefs is as good as none for getting things done.

Even so, Portland’s government may not be that much less effective than other forms of government. Notwithstanding its tripartite structure and relatively strong executive, our federal government hasn’t been able to solve its chronic problems, either.

Benevolent dictatorship anyone?

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hbfrank.JPGHalsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.