Faceoff

Should city councils have an odd number of members?

March 15, 2010 

Even membership is more than odd

BY MATTHEW EISLEY

Raleigh's even-numbered City Council needs to add a member so its majority can rule and do its job better for us citizens.

The council's stubborn 4-4 deadlock on whether to build the proposed Lightner Public Safety Center highlights the uselessness of ties on government policy-making bodies.

Wait, you might say - the tie was good, because it stopped a bad project. Fine.

But what if the plan's four supporters don't agree to a smaller, cheaper alternative, and our police headquarters, fire department and 911 call center remain inadequate? Happy then?

The 4-4 deadlock could persist indefinitely, or at least until the next council election, while service needs grow. Who's that good for?

We should never have vote ties in politics. Deliberating is good. But deadlocking is bad.

Every public body should be structured to prevent ties, with an odd number of voting members or a way to break deadlocks.

Raleigh's impasse recurs. Several years ago, the council deadlocked 4-4 on financing Hillsborough Street's reconstruction and on building the City Plaza on Fayetteville Street.

We could fix the city's flaw at least two ways: Take away the mayor's vote except to break ties, or add a council member. Because in our council system the mayor already is relatively weak, I favor adding a member to preclude ties. The extra salary cost: a modest $11,200 a year.

The mayor still would vote and remain fully engaged and accountable. No matter what threshold constitutes a majority, there's often a swing voter. On Lightner, it's John Odom.

Tell you what: Let's put this to a public vote. I dare say the outcome won't be a useless tie.

Matthew Eisley edits The N&O's North Raleigh News and Midtown Raleigh News.

The current setup works well

BY ANNE S. FRANKLIN

At the moment, our eight-member Raleigh City Council is deadlocked on one issue. Matthew Eisley proposes that we add a council member and put the mayor in a tie-breaking role to avoid such a painful circumstance.

Instead, we should keep the form we have had since 1973. With eight members, five votes are necessary to pass anything.

That requires at least two more supporters than opponents, which strengthens the majority and promotes a broader consensus. And the mayor always votes.

This offers at least three benefits.

First, no one council member can hold onto a "go to" role. All eight members are engaged. Citizen participation from groups and individuals of all kinds is kept open. Citizens have to work with all eight members. Solutions to difficult problems get pounded out with citywide input.

Second, the mayor is fully in the soup, not only as a facilitator but as a leader with a stake, constantly working in detail with every council member to move what can be moved.

Third, managers and city staff are motivated to work with all council members equally.

Governance is a messy business. When a public body gets stuck for more than a few weeks, it is facing profound differences, not only at the table but in the community.

This is not a call for a change in the form of governance but a call for defining values, respecting differences and finding common ground, then acting as well as we can, being mere mortals. I keep my hopes high for those who agree to serve and for the community, which needs their best work.

Anne S. Franklin served three at-large terms on the Raleigh City Council, from 1987 to 1993. She is a longtime consultant to local governments and nonprofit organizations.

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