Your correspondent has a hard time remembering any Times-Standard op-ed so informative and entertaining as the one published Tuesday, on the eve of the big public hearing on election reform in the city of Eureka. The editorial, titled "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" and signed by seven past luminaries of city government, took square aim at reform proponents and more or less damned them all for a bunch of grubby power-grabbers. It was the first shot in what the history books will call The Revolt of the Codgers.
The big public hearing was scheduled to start just after the deadline for this week's paper had passed, so we cannot report on the proceedings. We can only give a very brief précis of the issue. Boiled down, it is this: Eureka has a very unusual system for selecting its elected representatives. The city is divided into five "wards." Each ward has one seat on the City Council. Candidates seeking to serve on the Council must run for the seat allocated to the ward in which they live. However -- and this is the twist -- the whole entire city gets to vote in each ward's election, regardless of whether the voter lives inside that ward or not.
Reformers would like to change this, so that only citizens residing in a ward may vote for that ward's representative on the City Council. This has several benefits, they argue. Most immediately, it takes a good deal of money out of the election. If a candidate only has to compete in one-fifth of the City, then that candidate can spend more time campaigning face-to-face with the citizens she hopes to serve. In addition, neighborhoods would be strengthened: Each ward would have on the Council a dedicated voice, answerable only to the citizens of that ward.
Reasonable enough, on the face of it. Most cities in America either use this "true ward system" or else the free-for-all regime in which anyone can run and everyone can vote. (The latter is the only option available to California common law cities -- i.e., those without their own charter, which functions as a sort of Constitution for the town.) But, warn The Codgers, beware! "The thought of returning the city to a system of ward election only invites the return to a philosophy of control which would be adverse to the quality of life for residential and commercial life," they write. "The claim of financial reform translates to special interest politics."
How so? Well, what sort of images does the phrase "ward politics" conjure up in your mind? Chicago gangster kleptocrats, an endless series of miniature Boss Tweeds doling out favors for votes? That's pretty much spot-on, they argue. Eureka was once that way, they say, and it could become so again -- pull back the shades and that's pretty much the sum total of the current movement for reform.
Brief as it was the op-ed made a somewhat interesting case. It hinted at some periods of Eureka history with which I was unfamiliar, and I wanted to hear more. So I gave a call to head Codger Tom Hannah, the 78-year-old former two-term City Councilmember who served as lead pen for the Codger cri de coeur. Straight off, Hannah declined to elaborate much on the system of ward patronage that, he hinted, ran the town in the 1950s. This was too small a town, he said.
"Those who remember, and are old enough ... it will trigger memories," he told me. "That was the environment. To name names is ludicrous."
Hannah did agree to drill home the main point of the op-ed, which was that ward representatives beholden to their own neighborhoods only would have no incentive to take the common good of the city into account. City Council decisions would devolve into a self-interested dealmaking, with no one interested in taking on tough tasks to improve the whole. The redevelopment of Old Town might be one example: Would it truly have gone forward if each councilmember had tried to suck some of the resources into his own ward?
Unfortunately, Hannah was not quite so interested in taking questions. Several minutes of showdown, in which reporter and subject talked through each other, ended in a unanimous defeat for the media. "I've got jobs and chores to do!" Hannah finally said. "If that injures your psyche, then so be it!" Whereupon we both had a good chuckle and I thanked him sincerely for a very enjoyable conversation. We hung up, I hope, as friends.
It took another call to get the answer to the question I had hoped to ask. In your ideal world, do we do away with direct representation entirely and across the board? Doesn't the U.S. Congress essentially operate as a "ward system" writ large? Exactly! said former two-term councilmember Ernest Cobine, a member of the special city commission that designed the city's current hybrid system in the 1970s.
"Scratch my back I'll scratch yours," Cobine said. "That's the way it is Congress. And that's the reason for the problems we see today."
So representative democracy is the problem! Well, well ... maybe it is, after all. We will follow developments closely.