Two Times

Posted on Categories Uncategorized 1083

We have this Council Rule #19, which no other City has, where a Councilmember is limited to speaking more than twice on any issue… and no more than four minutes. It was introduced at this meeting, right after CM Martinelli and I were elected in November 2019 (Start at about 1:53):

I hope you watch the discussion, while remembering that this was the last time the full Council met before the new rules were implemented. And if you’ve seen any meetings since then (where CM Martinelli and I are members) you’ll immediately notice the difference.

As you can see from this video, before the new rules, meetings were far more conversational. Now, meetings don’t even approach what might be characterized as a real discussion. Councilmembers now just say their bit, a vote is taken, and boom that’s it. In the past, I’ve railed at how the previous Councils voted in lockstep all the time, but at least there were occasional real discussions. Now, it’s not only performative, it’s basically 100% pro forma.

At that 14 November discussion, several Councilmembers do try to soften the harsh edges of some of the new rules. They express concerns over the time limits and getting to speak only twice. Mayor Pina calms those fears by saying how reasonable and flexible everyone is going to be.

So much for flexibility. 😀

Personality or process?

There is this totally false narrative that somehow Councilmember Martinelli and I are to blame for the lack of harmony. Those meetings ran better (so the story goes) because that Council were more cooperative. In fact, it is these new rules, that the majority put in place at that meeting, that contribute to the bad environment. If you want proof, just attend any current Committee Meeting, where there are no such artificial limitations. There are few open hostilities and it’s mostly just down to business. And as soon as we start recording Committee Meetings, I’m sure more of you will be able to see what I’m saying. Fair process makes a difference.

I’m not saying that improved process will solve all problems. There is certainly personal animus on the Council right now. But these new rules are like itching powder that only exacerbate problems and I hope to convince my colleagues that it is in their best interest that they should all be rescinded. Because at the end of the day there are three facts:

  1. Whether Councilmembers speak twice or a hundred times, the majority still wins all the votes. These rules offer no political advantage.
  2. They do not speed up meetings (as was assumed.) No one wants to hear it, but our meetings are still, by a county mile, shorter than council meetings in other cities. And the only reason they ever went on in the past was because we had (sorry, guys but you know it’s true) some occasionally pretty windy speechifying from Councilmembers not named Harris or Martinelli.
  3. We have to work together. And given that fact, we shouldn’t have any rules that make the process any less pleasant than it needs to be. That’s in everybody’s interest.

Majoritarian… oh no, not another Civics lesson!

If I can accomplish only one thing in office to educate the public about our City it’s this: Council-Manager government (CMG), as we have in Des Moines, is 100% majoritarian.  The majority runs the table on everything, including the way meetings run, how much authority the City Manager or Mayor have. Everything.

So I never lay blame for the new rules or being muted or any of the crappy behavior solely at the Mayor’s feet. Again: it’s a majoritarian body. And since I joined the Council, every time something bad happens procedure-wise, none of my colleagues in that majority ever speaks up. Not once.

The incentives…

Unlike the State or Federal governments which you know a lot more about from civics class there is no ‘power sharing’ And there are zero ‘brakes’ or ‘veto points’ for the minority. CMG was designed that way. The base assumption is that in smaller towns most people will agree on things and so you want a system which gets things done with a minimum of fuss. And that creates certain incentives.

The first is that it gives a longstanding Council majority absolutely zero incentives to compromise, let alone collaborate. That’s why, sooner or later most cities with CMG devolve into blocs. The incentive to obtain a strong, single-minded majority is baked into the system.

Second, it encourages the City Manager to become a political actor–not to stay above the fray and avoid Council politics, but to actively and strongly align with the majority. Because that’s the most efficient way for the Executive to get things done. That’s not a slam against any individual. It’s just an incentive that all executives are subject to.

The counterbalance to these tendencies is, basically, good will–of the majority. Remember: the minority has no power! So everything, including the tone of the Council and any deference to opposing points of view on the Council depends entirely on the good will of the majority–and also, frankly, the ability of the City Manager to remain above that fray. It’s an honor system, pure and simple. And it’s asking an awful lot of people, even under the best of circumstances.

The Good Winner…

There is this huge thing in our culture about being a ‘good loser’. It’s one of the first things we teach our kids: how to lose gracefully. But what I’m trying to say to you is that Council-Manager government depends far more on ‘good winners’ to successfully represent the community.

Because that’s the thing: Even though everyone (including minority members) are elected by the same voters, if you’re in the Council majority, you win everything, all the time.

Think about that for a second: you’re in a softball league and you show up every two weeks already knowing the outcome of the game. Month after month or even year after year. That must feel pretty awesome if you’re on the winning side. But if yer not? Yeah, not so much.

So in my view, it just seems the gracious thing to do to treat the people who are inevitably going to be on the losing side with a measure of empathy and deference.

Seriously, under these circumstances who can more easily afford to be ‘big’ about things? The people who win every vote or those who always have to take it in the neck.