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Wednesday February 8th 2023

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Districting and Direct Mayoral Elections are Bad for Boulder


Just as in 2003, there is a behind-the-scenes push by the development and moneyed interests in Boulder to change our at-large council elections with the mayor chosen by the council. This may include a directly elected mayor, a ward system for council members, or both. And just as in 2003, whichever version emerges for the November election will be as bad an idea as it was then when the Boulder voters intelligently turned it down by a 2-1 margin.

Currently, the mayor in Boulder is chosen by a majority of the council and so by design starts off at least with the support of the majority. But a directly elected mayor will likely be whoever is given the most campaign money. They may not have the support of the council, and could easily end up in a power struggle with the city manager.

A ward or district system pretty much guarantees a splintering of interests, less real diversity, and will dissuade many qualified candidates from running.

Direct election of the mayor will lead to all sorts of problems:

The current system, with the mayor elected by council, reinforces the limited nature of that position in the city manager form of government. It also ensures that the mayor has the support of a majority of the council, which could easily not be the case if the mayor were directly elected.

A separate mayoral race will inevitably turn into a polarized, two-candidate race. The development interests would pick their candidate and shower him or her with money. And the rest of us would then be foolish to split our votes between two more civic minded candidates. This will lead to huge sums of money being spent on the campaigns, and campaign finance reform will disappear.

A directly elected mayor may try to elevate his or her stature by virtue of having been elected mayor. This could exacerbate the potentially incestuous relationship between the mayor and the city manager, or it could create huge tension if they compete for power. Whichever of these occurs, it will create serious problems for the mayor, for the manager, and for the council. It is an ongoing problem in cities that have directly elected mayors in a city manager form of government.

A directly elected mayor won’t necessarily even be the person with the most votes in the election, unless all other council members are from wards and none run at large. And clearly a directly elected mayor is most likely to be the person who can get the money interests behind them; only by luck would that be the best person.

The proposal may be to pick the mayor according to who gets the most votes, but using the current at-large voting system. But getting the most votes is not an indication of being the voters’ first choice. One candidate could get everyone’s fifth vote, and another candidate could get a few less votes but their votes were all first-choice votes. This latter person is clearly the preferred choice.

Ward systems have a multiplicity of problems and are a bad idea for Boulder:

Most of the issues that the city council deals with relate to the well-being of the entire community. Council passes a budget for the entire city; it appoints board and commission members for the entire city; it makes important policy decisions about land use, water, public safety and public services, etc., for the entire city.  Very few of the issues on which council acts are tied only to one neighborhood’s interests. Therefore, representation by wards would not provide any benefit on the majority of the issues before city council.

On those matters that particularly affect different neighborhoods, the ward approach falsely assumes that those within a geographic areas have unified interests.  The fact that this is not so has been evidenced many times – disputes over designation as a historic district; conflicts about traffic circles, opposing views about house size restrictions and development in general, and so on.  There is no reason to conclude that one individual elected from a particular area is representative of all the different viewpoints. Even if it were true that neighborhoods could be effectively represented by one person, even eight districts would not be nearly sufficient to give an effective voice to the many different and diverse neighborhoods in Boulder.

Even more to the point, under the current system, if one council member’s actions only benefit his or her own neighborhood and do not serve the interests of the rest of the city, voters can defeat that candidate at the next election.  But under a district or ward system, council members need not concern themselves with the interests of the rest of the city.

And, by the same token, the rest of council would be less likely to want to address that neighborhood’s concerns, since there would be no votes to gain.

Worse, if there is a conflict between the interests of the city as a whole and the interests of a particular neighborhood, district representatives could be penalized by their constituents if they do not place the interests of their districts above the interests of the city as a whole. This is exactly the opposite of how a government should run. However, it would appeal to the “What’s in it for me?” crowd. In contrast, under the present system, neighborhood concerns that warrant action become the concern of the entire community and are addressed in a way that balances all of the competing interests. And the entire city knows which city council members voted which way.

Ward systems deprive voters of choice and power and force out good candidates:

Instead of getting to vote for all nine seats as voters do currently, under a ward or district system, a voter would only get to vote for a minority of the seats. Also, currently, a person who gets the second-most votes still gets a four year term; under the ward system, coming in second doesn’t get anything, so good people will have less interest in running. And citizens could be limited to voting for the lesser of two evils, or have no choice at all.

Unless there is a runoff procedure or preference voting, all these races will be two person contests. Here’s why: Say that the ward is split 65/35 in favor of strong growth management, and there are a number of good growth management candidates and one developer running. Then all but one of the growth management candidates will have to drop out, because otherwise they know that staying in the race would lead to the developer getting a plurality of votes, even if it was only 35%. Worse, they may be forced to decide ahead of time among themselves to avoid a situation where there are three or more candidates and it’s too late for some to to withdraw from the ballot.

Because of this, in a ward system or with a directly elected mayor, all the races will likely turn out to be one-on-one, with the person with the most money likely to win. Think of who will run for mayor; it will only be someone with huge personal resources or supported by an organization with huge resources. Campaigns would be more likely to become negative since candidates would have an identified opponent.

The level of participation in council elections varies hugely between areas. So at least some of the wards are likely to have very low voter turnout, which means that the votes of those in high participation areas count less than those in low participation areas. Also this makes those low turn out areas vulnerable to a small interest group campaign or GOTV efforts by moneyed interest groups.

Because of the smaller number of voters in each district, it would be easier for a single-issue or a “stealth” candidate to be elected to City Council by appealing to a small group of people who feel strongly about a particular issue, rather than having to appeal to the whole community.

In a ward or district system, incumbents are harder to oust. For example, our BVSD school board is districted, and many times there are uncontested seats and occasionally even a seat for which no one is running. Neighboring communities (Broomfield and Louisville for example) have frequently had uncontested district seats, and even one district seat that no one ran for at all.

Interestingly, the BVSD provided a great example of the problems of districts. Some years ago the Broomfield representative pushed for selling central Boulder’s older schools. No doubt she was representing her district’s interests as best as she knew how, but it points out the obvious conflicts that can occur.

Wards and directly elected mayor will lead to creation of political parties and gerrymandering:

The inevitable effect of these kinds of changes will be to force all candidates, whether running for a district, at-large, or for mayor, to pick among themselves who should run for a particular seat, denying voters the ability to choose. Then, this requirement to “choose or lose” will end up with the creation of political parties and secret caucuses within the City. This will produce “machine” politics, exactly what we have always tried to avoid here in Boulder. The division of the City of Boulder into districts is also likely to result in log rolling, vote trading, and pork-barrel politics among districts. We do not need this form of cronyism.

Then, of course, there is the issue of gerrymandering in deciding district boundaries, even if the staff does the leg work. It is simply impossible to avoid this kind of manipulation, as there is no good value-free way to set these boundaries. And given the weak Charter provision in Section 13 about council directing staff (the majority determines the punishment), the process will be dirty to start with and only get worse over time. Boulder will then end up being subjected to lawsuits over the boundaries, just as happened at the Legislature.

Cities with districts or wards have many problems:

Many cities along the Front Range elect their City Council members from districts. But how many Boulder residents would prefer to live in other Front Range cities with their lack of identity, ongoing sprawl, lack of planning to protect views, lack of effective public transportation, and lack of open space?  Such unpleasantness can be a result of city council members who focus on the interests of their districts rather than the issues of the city at large.

There is no agreement about the right way to define “equal” districts or to identify the frequency of redistricting among Front Range cities:  Louisville requires equality in “population” and requires adjustment of boundaries by vote of a majority of the entire city council; Fort Collins requires equality in “registered voters” and requires adjustment of boundaries before every regular election; Broomfield requires equality in “numbers of voters” and requires adjustment of boundaries at least once every ten years or before an election; Longmont requires equality in “qualified electors” and requires adjustment of boundaries at least every ten years or before an election.

In the 2001 elections for example, wards in Longmont, Louisville and Broomfield had candidates who ran unopposed, demonstrating the difficulty in recruiting candidates from each district, much less qualified candidates.  Voters in those wards did not have any choice in the election.

In summary, we should stick to our current system:

At-large elections strengthen the feeling of unity in Boulder and minimize local conflicts. The Boulder City Council reflects the interests of the City as a whole because voters throughout the City elect its members, and city council members have generally had a citywide perspective, whether elected from Gunbarrel, Table Mesa, the Hill, or North Boulder.

In Boulder’s at-large electoral system, voters have a choice in the election of all members of City Council, and our current system draws the best candidates in the City no matter where they may live. Why would we want to change?

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