A Letter to the Rochester Charter Commission

To: Distinguished Members of the Rochester Charter Commission

From: Michael Wojcik, Rochester City Council, Ward 2

Date: 11/08/2010

RE: Thoughts on the Rochester City Charter

The first priority of an elected official should be to serve as protecto of the democracy. Regardless of differences candidates have on the issues, so long as the democracy is fair, open, and equitable, our citizens will have the power to shape the democracy as they choose. However, as soon as advantages are given to some and not others, the system can become manipulated by cronyism.

It is my hope that every member of the Charter Commission agrees with the following principles:

  • Every neighborhood and citizen is deserving of equal representation.
  • Advantages should not be given to individual candidates.
  • Every citizen should have an equal challenge in pursuing elected office.

So long as we agree on these core democratic principles, there are decisions that should be reviewed for their consequences on the above principles.

First, I would like to discuss some real world implications as they pertain to the elections.

  • Incumbency matters-The simple fact is that running as an incumbent offers a candidate an advantage over other candidates, both in terms of established network and name recognition.
  • Timing matters-The reality is that a candidate running in a presidential election year must have more funds at their disposal to wade through the noise of more publicized races. This is similarily, but less so true from congressional election cycles.
  • Overlap matters-A significant number of our mayors, council presidents, and non-City elected officials have come from the ranks of the City Council. However, our rotating cycle of elections currently punishes some citizens interested in pursuing office while not others.

With these principles and observations in mind, I would like to initiate discussion on the following six items. Each is intended on being a separate discussion.

1) Term Limit-In 1994, citizens successfullly enacted by referendum Section 3.011 of the City Charter. This rule is not enforced as I understand it because it was determined not to comply with the State Constitution. This however, is no excuse for the Charter Commission not to attempt to enact the clearly expressed will of Rochester voters. I purpose that we work within the framework as we can and implement by Charter Amendment that any individual exceeding the years in office specified by Section 3.011 be paid total compensation of $1 per year. The hope would be that this would serve as incentive for elected officials to voluntarily comply with Rochester’s expressed interest in term limits.

2) Immediately end appointments to the City Council-Perhaps no current policy is as unfair to our citizens as our current policy of appointing candidates to office and then letting them run for re-election as incumbents. By definition, a section of the city is having a leader assigned by a collection of elected officials that do not represent that section of the city. Moreover, the gift of incumbency has been bestowed upon someone who did not earn that privilege. This practice is a method of potentially placing an individual that could never win an election based on their own merits into office, and then subsequently giving them and advantage in re-election. This is also a process that potentially places lobbyist or political party cronyism above direct representation. We should leave the seat vacant of have a fair election. This could easily be done, see item number 6.

3) Opposition to a 7th Ward-I have heard discussion of this and would like to state my rational for why this is not needed. The reality is that given a City Council of seven, this would leave us with eight votes which is unwise, or would lead to the dissolution of the council president’s role. I would point out that given the current distribution of the population within the wards after the 2011 redistricting, some wards are likely to lose constituents. Also, the county districts, which appear to be manageable, are similar in size to the City wards as the County divides their population seven ways, while the City just six.

4) Gerrymandering-I will state that it is my opinion that the current drawing of the Rochester ward boundaries is unfair to many neighborhoods. Gerrymandering is a serious issue in our democracy, and I would like to see Rochester take a proactive stand fighting for neighborhood continuity in our Charter. Currently Kutzky Park is divided into three wards. A great deal of frustration has been expressed to me that some citizens feel that their representative neither takes the time to attend neighborhood meetings, nor understand their issues. Such is the case with gerrymandering. Core proactive neighborhoods can be split into many wards thereby reducing their ability to have dedicated representation. The splitting of established neighborhoods can easily be eliminated with a Charter Amendment stating that established neighborhoods must be in one ward. There is enough granularity in other sections of Rochester to easily allow planning to achieve this.

5) Election dates-Our current election schedules potentially treat our citizens differently whether they live on one side of the street or the other. This violates sound democratic principles. First and foremost, our staggered election cycle means that someone living in Wards 2, 4, or 6 will require more resources to run a similarily effective campaign. Our citizens deserve democratic equality. Second, an office holder of a ward position will either have to relinquish their seat or not, depending which office they are interested in pursuing. Our citizens deserve democratic equality. It is my understanding that the current schedule was established with voter turnout in mind. I would suggest this only further serves to provide incumbents with an ongoing advantage. As the number of voters that may be voting primarily for higher offices like President or Congress, name recognition gains an edge over understanding of candidate or issues. Every citizen deserves the same conditions under which they should run for office because our citizens deserve democratic equality. Our current election schedule promotes the antithesis of democratic equality. There are a number of solutions that would achieve better parity; I will suggest only one, but would prefer any system where every citizen and election is equal. I feel that council elections in the off years would be more appropriate. I would like to see all six at the same time. There is a common myth that we council members are so precious that we need continuity. Having seen the system on the inside,  I assure you that we are not that precious and the staff can provide the continuity. If this were done, council president and mayor races could be held at any time as the elections would remain equal. Any argument that we are increasing cost is weak and can easily be offset by moving to a different election structure (see item 6).

6) Ranked Choice Voting (or IRV)-Rochester is now the only legitimate first class city in Minnesota that does not use ranked choice voting. Every court that has reviewed the legality has affirmed IRV as constitutional. We saw in Minneapolis that the elections did not create confusion and most results were quickly available, despite lagging machine technology. At this point, I am not necessarily advocating for a change unless we use the cost of elections as an excuse to avoid fair elections. Regardless of whether we choose to move in this direction, we should at least ensure that as we go through upgrade cycles in our voting equipment, we ensure we get capability to count IRV ballots in the future. There has been much discussion about IRV, but I would like to point out some advantages for our citizens in Rochester.

A) Less election expense: the election cost is reduced because the process of requiring both a primary and general election is eliminated.

B) Special elections are easier: no longer will we skirt democracy by appointing individuals to office.

C) Less dirty campaigning: perhaps the most underrated advantage. We have seen at every level of politics that the process for winning can consist of getting down to two “legitimate” candidates and then simply making the other candidate look worse than you. Why not? It works very well. IRV however, allows voters not only to choose a preference, but rank candidates such that the penalty of irritating voters is far greater. Not surprisingly, the Minneapolis elections were seen as being more issue centric with less dirty campaigning.

At an absolute minimum, let’s make sure that we understand the process and what we need to have the option in the future. Local governments remain the engine for change in the state. We have the ability to show our citizens a better, more cost effective way.

I look forward to having a meaningful discussion and answering your questions at you January meeting. I am sorry I am not in attendence for this meeting, but by the time I had been informed I was on your agenda, I had a conflict. Please plan on a discussion in January and bring your toughest questions and candor. As most of you are likely aware, I do not pull my punches and I will offer you the very same unapologetic candor I have brought to Rochester City Council.

Sincerely,

Michael Wojcik

Rochester City Council Ward 2

 

 
 

 

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