Wait a Minute
Springfieldians propose being herded by cats
January 6, 1978
The siren song of city manager government was heard in Springfield in the 1970s. It promised political reform through structural changes to the local system of representation. The plan described here was based on a faulty premise, which is that improving municipal government's representativeness one would improve its effectiveness.
Other reforms were proposed in Springfield during this period, and were the subject of other pieces listed on this page.
One of the gripes most often voiced about Springfield's commission government is that it is remote from the people it is supposed to serve, unresponsive and unmovable. "Remote" is a vague word—which explains its popularity as a political catchword—and it is impossible to tell exactly what people mean when they use it. Do they mean the government is physically remote? Surely not. Philosophically remote? Possibly, though I find little trace of ideology in this squabble. Culturally remote? Ah, there is something. But the code word for that is ' 'unrepresentative.''
As far as I can make it out, when people talk about city government being remote they are referring principally to its administrative remoteness. They mean that people are insulated from the sources of decision-making by the city bureaucracy, that the city, acting through its various departments, acts according to its own priorities instead of the priorities of those who elected it, that, in ways unspecified but still deeply felt, government doesn't care. "I didn't have an alderman I could go to with my problems the way I was used to," says one unhappily transplanted citizen, "and city government felt farther away from me because of that."
One remedy being touted by the Citizens for Representative Government (CRG) is an aldermanic government, specifically a ten-alderman council which would hire a full-time professional city manager to take care of the day-to-day affairs of the city. The aldermen under the scheme would be people from the neighborhoods—largish neighborhoods, to be sure, since each ward would encompass some 10,000 souls—and would serve as a link between the individual voter and the government, a conduit of gripes and suggestions, a red tape cutter. The alderman would be more accessible and more accountable—meaning more vulnerable to retribution at the polls—to the voters in the wards than the commissioners elected at large.
But would it work? Under the commission system, in which each council member is responsible for running a specific city department, one's vote counts directly for or against the person running each department. It is small leverage against a person on the council but it is still very real, a political and moral claim to his attention. It is as intimate a relationship between governed and governor as there is.
Under the new system, one's vote would count directly for or against a single alderman (Step One) who in turn casts one of ten votes (Step Two) in the hiring of a city manager who chooses the department managers (Step Three) who actually run things (Step Four). The voter would thus be removed from the source of day-to-day decision-making by four administrative levels.
This distance between the people's man and the decision-makers is no oversight, merely the structural reflection of the system's philosophy. The council acts strictly as a policy-making body, the city's legislature. It has no direct control of the city's administrative machinery. The executive power is invested instead in the city manager, who in turn delegates it to the various department heads. It is at this level, where street lights are mended, alleys patched, trash collected, zoning choices made, in short, where policy is transformed into practice, that the city is made manifest in the neighborhoods. And it is at this level that the neighborhoods' representatives would have no direct authority.
Ultimately gripes would have to be answered by the city manager. A citizen would, of course, be able to take his case directly to the manager, bypassing his alderman. But he has no authority over the manager, no leverage; the difference between dealing with one of the present commissioners and a city manager is the difference between dealing with an elected politician and a bureaucrat. If, however, the citizen takes his problems to his alderman, he is reduced to talking to a man who will talk to the man who will talk to the man in charge.
(Given the nature of most of the complaints of remoteness against the commission system, it occurs to me that it is not a change of government that is needed but an ombudsman system. It is a notion that requires more discussion than I can give it here, so that package must lay unopened for the moment.)
An aldermanic system of local government does not by itself bring people closer to government, not if one means by government the power to get things done. Whatever its virtues in broadening the policy-making process (and they are several) aldermanic government won't do much to remedy what ails most citizens about city government. □