At-large approach makes sense
In light of the municipal election Tuesday, it might be instructive to consider a reorganization of the system to pick City Council persons. Many of Elkins’ districts have slowly become depleted of voters, due to death mainly and a lack of replacements. In the Fifth Ward in 2015, the race for City Council attracted so few voters that it resembled a baseball score rather than a serious vote.
This brings up a reconsideration of the single district/two representative model that Elkins currently possesses. Potentially, it limits the talent that is available to both represent the citizenry and to govern the town efficiently. With the explosion of appointments after a member leaves the Council and is replaced by an unelected representative, it further places in doubt whether the majority is reflected in any of their decisions.
An alternative is an at-large system where the first five candidates elected city-wide are chosen. This attracts a larger electorate and allows a larger vetting process. And, it also attracts an increased talent pool. Some districts have gotten smaller and thus these races are less competitive. Moreover, it discourages candidates from races in areas that attract more competent candidates. Given the current plurality election, minus a runoff, this overcrowding is an important consideration.
Moreover, it might assure that as the quality of candidates improve, the Council will be less vulnerable to sudden resignations. It is still a bit questionable how replacements are chosen.
The Council itself picks them and this gives rise to people questioning the process. Some have been selected after being in Elkins for a short time while others are rejected on thin grounds. Suddenly, Councilpersons who were not elected themselves can cast lofty judgments on other potential members. Whatever it is, it is not democratic.
But the at-large system has a better chance at alleviating this carousel approach, where one falls off and another gets on without facing the public at the polls. It places in question the legitimacy of decisions and the motives of the Council itself.
When a seat becomes open it is a chance for office, not a job interview. To try to depoliticize such an effort runs contrary to the proposition that the people decide. Perhaps citizens can be in on the process to assure that such picks are not agenda-based or simply inside baseball.
The problem of the existing system is that it limits the number of viable candidates available for serious consideration.
If a bigger, more vibrant, district has a lot of political talent, then let the whole city decide who runs the government and not a handful of voters in depleted districts.
Elkins is three miles long, yet it possesses an election process of a city far bigger. It is small enough that most residents know their neighbors and are not strangers to those a few blocks down.
An at-large approach makes the voting process simpler, no scattered polling places or district ballots. It might be cheaper with one ballot with the mayor’s race and all the candidates listed. This allows voters to have their say and ensure a more democratic process.