January 26th, 2011

Real Representation in Lehi: A District-Based City Council


photo credit: Horia Varlan

Imagine, if you will, a United States Congress in which each member is elected by the entire country. 535 Senators and Representatives appeal to the American masses for their election, and all congressmen represent everybody in an “at-large” political body.

Your wrinkled facial expression betrays a near-universal reaction to such a proposal: disgust, strong disagreement, and numerous predictions—all likely true—of what an “at-large” Congress would end up doing to the country. There is a principle upon which all agree who understand the importance of the structure put in place this nation’s founders. That principle is proper representation.

“The difference most relied on, between the American and other republics,” wrote James Madison, “consists in the principle of representation.” The separate and often contrasting interests between different States were united through a compound Republic with a bicameral legislature. The nature of representation was one widely debated in the formation of the Constitution. Consider the following from one of the Anti-Federalists:

Experience has taught mankind, that legislation by representatives is the most eligible, and the only practicable mode in which the people of any country can exercise this right, either prudently or beneficially. But then, it is a matter of the highest importance, in forming this representation, that it be so constituted as to be capable of understanding the true interests of the society for which it acts, and so disposed as to pursue the good and happiness of the people as its ultimate end. The object of every free government is the public good, and all lesser interests yield to it. That of every tyrannical government, is the happiness and aggrandisement of one, or a few, and to this the public felicity, and every other interest must submit.

Analyzing the issue in detail, it was decided, as one delegate in New York mentioned, “that the representative should be chosen from small districts.” Only then could the distinct interests of the people find a voice in influencing legislation and better informing how to promote the general welfare, of which they were a part.

This principle is not one which finds no other reasonable application outside of Congress. Indeed, the same holds true at the state level; individuals are elected from the various parts of the state to join together in one legislative body to discuss matters of importance to the whole, with each representing their different (and differing) constituencies. The absurd example mentioned at the outset of this article applies equally here. Few would consider a legislative body to be truly representative of the whole when its members are comprised from a small area of the geographical boundaries of that state. Having little to no relations with those in the outlying or un-represented areas, they would be ignorant of their concerns and ambivalent to their unique interests.

But why stop at the state level? If proper representation is a true principle for legislative bodies claiming to act in the name and for the good of the people within their jurisdiction, then that principle applies equally well at the municipal level.

An article in yesterday’s Daily Herald highlights an upcoming initiative that would give citizens in Lehi the opportunity to enforce this principle by changing the form of the city council. Whereas the council is currently comprised of five members elected “at-large”—meaning that each is elected by the votes of a majority of the whole city—the initiative, if passed, would create five districts for city council representation. Current council members would each be assigned to one district, and future elections would be on a district basis, with each subgroup of the city voting on only those candidates who reside in their district and seek the council position that pertains to their area.

For instructive purposes, here is a map of where the current council members live in Lehi, along with a (very rough) depiction of the city boundaries. Note that the newer communities in the north-western area of the city are in representative isolation:

Now, one might correctly rebut this insinuation of un-representation by suggesting that the voters in those isolated areas could mobilize and get their own candidates on the ballot, and turn out in droves to see them elected. This is true. But imagine that the residents in this area mobilize so well that they get every position on the council filled with an individual from their part of town. Then the map would simply reverse, and the city’s representatives would be based in a concentrated area still. Districts will solve this imbalance and ensure an equitable and fair representation between the separate parts of the city—especially important considering Lehi’s unusual geographic and demographic diversity.

Under districts, elections would be easier and cheaper for those interested in running, as they would be required to appeal to a lower number of voters. Accountability would increase, since the council member’s constituency would be smaller in size, and those voters could focus on a single council member over whom they have voting control. Each area of the city would feel like they had a voice on the council to advocate for their different interests.

Naturally, the idea is not being met without resistance. Quoted in the Herald article is Lehi’s mayor, who stated:

I’m an at-large kind of guy. Sometimes you don’t get the best decisions for the whole city when they are like that [when councils are district-based]. I like it the way it is right now, I think that if it’s not broke don’t fix it. People who are in council right now, they have the whole city in mind. It’s not my area and your area — it’s my community, you know.

Clearly, this response is not based on any principle or fundamental concept. It’s based instead on the status-quo, and an intellectually bankrupt defense of a system whereby council members claim to “have the whole city in mind.” Would 535 “at-large” congressmen really have the whole country in mind? Would a concentration of representatives based in the more populous areas of Utah have the whole state in mind?

Under an “at-large” system, each of the council-members are elected by the entire city. Thus, their constituency overlaps, and all five claim to represent everybody. I argue, as I was quoted in the Herald’s article as saying, that when multiple individuals in the same legislative body claim to represent the same group, that they in fact do not represent anybody. Each can pursue his own interests, content in the thought that the other members, representing the same group of people, are doing the actual “representing”.

This is not to say that the current council members are guilty of this poor representation. I am not making an accusation either way on that issue. This is not about them—it’s about proper representation. Lehi could enjoy a council filled with stellar individuals who try their hardest to represent the residents of the city, and I would still pursue this issue. It’s right, it’s grounded on principle, and it’s especially needed in a large city with a diverse demography.

I advocate that all overlapping constituencies be done away with, that the separate groups of different individuals be given an actual voice of representation for their unique concerns and interests. There are several cities in Utah which have followed this district-based format already—Provo, Ogden, Midvale, Riverton, Murray, Sandy, West Jordan, and many others—and should this initiative pass, as I hope it will, Lehi will be the next.

11 Responses to “Real Representation in Lehi: A District-Based City Council”

  1. Jeffrey T
    January 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    I agree with this post, with one clarification.

    I like John Dougall’s suggestion that it doesn’t matter so much that the elected representative lives within the district—only that he/she is elected by that district.

    In other words, it isn’t about where the representatives live (as your map suggests)—it’s about each area of town being represented by someone of their own choosing.

  2. Parker B
    January 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    I kind of skimmed the article, are you planning on running for the rep of your district? If so, let me know. I wanna help :)

  3. Connor
    January 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    Jeffrey,

    I see and sympathize with the point. I am undecided on that issue.

    Parker,

    Egads, no! I have no desire to run for city council.

  4. Doug Bayless
    January 26, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Interesting idea. One of the challenges of representation is certainly to find representatives willing to represent the different areas.

    In my town we had still have city-wide reps of course, but we had a very clear difficulty with representation a few years back. Despite tremendous growth in Spanish Fork, all six at large reps lived within a few blocks of each other down in the original town center.

    As some have mentioned, this was not — in and of itself — an inherent evil. But, in our case there was an openly stated resentment of the new areas of town by some council members and each of the three incumbents running for re-election had recently made known their explicit desires to represent the town center which was the ‘actual town’. A flurry of ‘exploit and mistreat the unwelcome newcomers because we can’ small resolutions passed (revoking old water rights of outlying areas to increase revenues, etc.)

    Imagine their surprise, lol, when all three incumbents were voted out in close elections — in at least two cases ending generations of assumed birthrights.

    Districts would have been a great protection against this kind of thing, but an informed and motivated electorate will usually correct those kind of abuses by nature.

  5. vontrapp
    January 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    I’m not completely convinced that at-large representation would be a terrible thing. If it resembles anything at all our current winner-takes-all method of choosing those at-large representatives, then I can certainly see a terrible problem with that. The issue presumes that each and every candidate would have to pander to get at least a plurality of votes to be seated.

    However, considering the logistics of actually having 500+ at large reps for the whole country would, in fact, preclude such a method of choosing. Consider, for illustration, a runoff ballot. People would be and feel encouraged to vote for whoever they want, encouraging still a great variety of candidates. Likely, many candidates would campaign either to localities or to special interest groups, rather than the whole country. You, as a voter, would find it impossible to know ALL the candidates running (after all, there would be at least 500, but more likely thousands) and so you would focus on those who would cross paths with your interests, your issues, or your livelihood or locality.

    Furthermore, consider the few candidates that *do* manage to pander to, and catch the attention of, the country at large, and garner support from a great many people. Assuming one seat, one vote, you might have a top few candidates that, on the instant runoff ballot, get the initial 40%, 25%, 16% vote totals, each time one is seated, you could remove the ballots of those who are now “represented”. Indeed, you would get the final 10% or less battling it out for 90% of the seats, or something to that effect. If you want to talk about limiting the tyranny of the majority… well how about that?

    I’m just thinking and ranting out loud, here. I’m not convinced at-large representation would be good or similar to what I’ve described, but I’m not convinced it would be terrible – depending of course on the exact particulars of how it is carried out.

    Oh, and re: running for city council, that’s exactly why you should run! ;)

  6. JJL9
    January 26, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    I’m with Jeffrey on this one, Connor. I understand the importance of dividing into districts for voting purposes, but I don’t see any reason to limit the voters’ choice to someone that lives in their area.

  7. Michelle
    January 27, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    Connor, who would draw the district boundaries?

  8. Connor
    January 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm #

    Michelle, here is the proposed ordinance. #2 states:

    Within 6 months after passage of this ordinance, the City shall, by ordinance, divide the City into five districts that are substantially-equal in population. All area within an individual district shall be contiguous, while avoiding peninsulas where possible. Existing geographical features shall be used where possible in the determination of district boundaries.

  9. Michelle
    January 27, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

    Thanks. I hadn’t seen the proposed ordinance yet.

    With three of the current city council members living so near each other, I’m a little concerned about gerrymandering. If they follow the ordinance, that shouldn’t be a problem, but you never know.

  10. Brian
    February 1, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    I personally would vote (if given the chance) for the system where the representative for the district must live in the district.

    When I think about my city, I feel like I know what the general concerns and issues are in my HOA (and just across Redwood rd) much, much better than the concerns and issues of the folks living on the other end of the city, which is a 10 minute drive from me.

    Letting the district reps live in any district is akin to electing a Senator for your state who has never lived or even been in your own state (is this allowed? I honestly don’t know). A district rep who doesn’t live in the district may (as from the example above) decide to revoke water rights for his district, against the wishes of his constituents, because the rep may see an advantage of it helping “his” part of town. If that person then feels that they will be outed at the next election, they can just instead decide to run for a different district the 2nd time around. Seems silly to me …

  11. Connor
    February 4, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Here is a story about our initiative by the Salt Lake Tribune.

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