Welcome to week #1 of the Cookingham Connection. This week, we hear from Emily Leuning, the intern in Sherwood and West Linn, Oregon. Emily also volunteers with ELGL as our program assistant. The Cookingham Connection pairs engaged leaders with emerging leaders to learn and think about the guideposts of city management. Today, Emily tackles Guidepost #1. She reflects and responds to Chris Jordan’s post from last Friday.
Never forget that the council, to the best of its ability, expresses the will of the people. There will be times when you will not understand why the council takes certain actions, but you will find that the council is generally right, and the members express public opinion as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents.
I’m new to this whole City Council business. Really new. The entirety of my experience with councils consists of Parks and Rec episodes, the mandatory city council meeting our class had to attend in 8th grade and, more recently, reading transcripts of Portland, Sherwood and West Linn council meetings. (Side note: if you haven’t seen Patton Oswalt’s Pawnee City Council Star Wars filibuster outtake, click here. You’re welcome.)
When I initially read this guidepost I thought, “Yeah, straightforward, easy”, but then, after a few more readings, Cookingham’s qualifiers got me thinking. In reference to constituents’ opinions, he says the makes decisions “to the best of its ability” and “as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents”.
The council’s ability to make the best decision may be hampered by a number of things: lack of representation, complicated city code, concerns about re-election, etc. To me, the most significant of these is the fact that councils don’t often reflect the community they serve. How many councils today consist solely of white, middle-aged men of a certain socioeconomic status? Or have seven members, two of which are female? Are any of the communities they represent all-male (or 5/7 male)? To be sure, political representation at all levels has certainly improved since 1956, but that doesn’t mean that the job is done.
The final part of this guidepost refers to council members expressing public opinion “as they see it and as they learn it from their constituents”. However, unless the community is extremely small, there is no way that council members are definitively able to know what their constituents think about a particular issue (of course, there aren’t too many examples of governance by direct democracy outside of recalls and referendums). Granted, most city councilors have lived within the community for years or even decades and likely have a general idea of their constituents’ psychographics.
Based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of city council meetings, it seems to me that the citizens who show up and get involved in the city council process are usually those who are very much for or against a particular project or referendum. Citizen input is a fundamental component of the process, and, again, I suggest that increased representation would help the council improve the quality of its decision-making. Find a way to get input from people who don’t have time to attend council meetings because they are single parents who can’t afford a babysitter. Find a way to ascertain what the college students and recent college grads think about the issue. Find a way to get people involved who have traditionally been left out of the decision-making process. When a broader range of people get involved, the councilors hear from a wider range of citizens and opinions other than the passionate pro and con can be explored.
Personally, I would have liked to be part of the Portland City Council back in April because of this gem I came across in the council agenda: Request of Barry S. to address Council regarding living from the outside of planet earth.