Thursday, June 21, 2012

Delegates v. Trustees

I went to a City Council meeting a few nights ago where the Council looked at two major issues: the new Fiscal Year Budget and an ordinance banning smoking in public places. I was frustrated during that meeting for two reasons. First, some residents complained about not being included in the political process (not enough meetings, not enough interaction between staff, council, and residents). Second, I realized that they would not likely support adding resources to the City budget to provide the 360-degree access they desire.

We pride ourselves on our democracy here in America, except we don't really live in a democracy. We live in a federal constitutional republic. We don't all vote for everything. We give the power to legislate to others - our city councils, state assemblies, school boards, and federal representatives. Much of the legislation that goes on at virtually every level of politics does not involve the average citizen. We assume that our elected officials act as either delegates or trustees, and the responsibility depends upon the geography's politics.

A delegate is selected by a population to represent them and their interests. Inherently, a delegate is given power to act without necessarily a direct means of accountability to his or her constituents beyond the ballot box. The delegate, having received legislative power from the constituency, can vote his or her conscience on any issue.

A trustee, on the other hand, faces more significant constraints. When elected, trustees are given power only to act directly in the interests of their electors. They have a fiduciary responsibility to act as the voice of their district, ward, precinct, or state.

Tuesday's Council meeting was the most clear example of schizophrenic American politics that I have ever witnessed. For simplicity, I'll divide the meeting into two parts. The first part consisted of a dicussion of the annual budget while the second part was the final public hearing about the smoking ban.

During the budget debate, only two individuals spoke about the proposed budget. In particular, the second person was upset about the lack of public input about the budget process. The City Manager responded by saying that the city had held at least twice as many public meetings than last year and that any resident is welcome to contact their city council representative if they have input before the vote. The woman was pretty upset at that response.

The Council Chamber was still packed during the second portion of the meeting for the final vote on a smoking ban in public places. Those opposed to a smoking ban vowed to start a petition for a referendum the next day and "let the people decide."

Wait...didn't the people already decide? Didn't they elect their representatives? Do they want their council members to be delegates or trustees? Certainly, as delegates the council has the agency to make the decisions they feel are the best for their city. If they were trustees, they would be constrained to make the decision that at least a majority of their constituents support.

I think a great problem in representative democracy is that people want it to go both ways. Tuesday night was an exceptional opportunity to juxtapose the two models. During the budget portion of the night - what is supposed to be the major fiscal and policy document that guides the city over the next 12 months - residents were at best ambivalent and at worst completely uninformed. They clearly left this major document to their elected delegates to make the right decision.

At the same time, the smoking ban clearly became a battleground between the majority of the council (which ultimately passed the ordinance) and residents opposed to the ban. Those opposed wanted the council to act as trustees - to vote exactly as they wished as if the council were puppets attached by strings to their constituents. Even more frightening, they wish to use a referendum to overturn the ban. One man even claimed that "all major projects like this should be voted on directly by voters."

Right. Like that works out well (California, anyone?).

Ultimately, I think that our politicians are delegates. Anyone who expects their elected officials to act as trustees all of the time are living in a dream world. Politicians only act as trustees long enough to make certain they have 51% of the vote - and the constituency could care less about most of the issues.

Want responsible government? Make informed decisions about candidates and participate whenever possible.


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