Providing Services: Why Municipalities Don’t Need Political Parties

Providing Services: Why Municipalities Don’t Need Political Parties

On Monday, I wrote about the necessity of political parties. Today, I want to talk about why they aren’t necessary for the good functioning of most municipalities.

Parties are necessary for bodies like Congress and Florida’s state Legislature because they perform a critical organizing function in those large deliberative bodies. Without something that looks and feels like political parties (by whatever name), it is very difficult, if not impossible, to formulate and pass legislation. Parties provide both philosophical structure to legislative discussions and organizational strength to push through bills that cannot possibly please everyone.

This defense of parties provides relatively faint praise. Necessary they are; wonderful they may not be.

Maybe more to the point, where we need parties, we need to have them. Where we don’t need them, it is doubtful that we ought to have them.

Which brings me to the subject of our tradition of nonpartisan municipal elections.

I think most citizens understand why elections of judges are nonpartisan. Those who sit on the bench do not sit as representatives. They sit as adjudicators of conflicts over legal matters. Being a judge isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about promoting a particular partisan or even social agenda. It should be about applying and, at appellate levels, interpreting the law.

But the individuals who sit on city councils and in the mayor’s chair are representatives, not judges. They run for and secure office based on public sentiments about the direction of the city and how well the council is advancing or redirecting the city’s course. They bear a strong resemblance to representatives and senators in this regard.

Two things set municipal politics apart from those elsewhere in the federal system, both of which are more consistent with a nonpartisan than a partisan approach.

First, most legislatures (councils, commissions or boards) are small. In Florida, most typical is the five-member council. Other than a couple of very unique, very large cities, I don’t believe any city has a council of more than nine (you are welcome to correct me, by the way, dear reader).

While parties are very helpful with deliberative bodies numbering even a few dozen, a deliberative body of a dozen or fewer is small enough for each member to have his or her say, to read each other’s intentions and concerns, and to find common ground if common ground is to be found. When such a body is sharply divided on a particular issue, it is not that hard to fashion a bare majority either of like-minded individuals or of some with like minds and some who can be won by some critical concession. The work gets done without party discipline or stable ideological coalitions.

I emphasize “stable” because, of course, ideological coalitions do form on city councils at times. But they need not be stable across all issues; new coalitions can form readily and achieve desired outcomes when only one or at most two people choose to realign.

Second, most of the work of city councils involves finding the best way to provide services the citizens need or want. While state legislators and members of Congress are free to wrangle over bills and budgets, threaten to disrupt the flow and simply postpone action, cities simply must keep providing the services they were created to provide. What is more, it is much easier for frustrated citizens to (a) identify intransigent councilmembers, (b) find and harass them and (c) vote them out of office, than it is for us to engage our state representatives or members of Congress with similar effectiveness.

There may be ideological disagreement about many things that are a part of municipal governance. But there is very little ideological disagreement about the necessity of ensuring that the streets are paved, the roads not flooded, and the public safety assured. We all expect clean water in our faucets, dirty water to go down the pipe, the park to be well-maintained and the traffic lights to work. And so on.

Essentially every elected municipal official will benefit, whether in the political sense of having the continuing opportunity for public service or the personal sense of not being harassed every time he or she goes shopping, by making sure the city provides the services the citizens have asked it to provide.

And that is most of what councils do.

We don’t need to know to which party a colleague belongs to know that, in almost every case, he or she wants to satisfy the public demand for certain services. And the voting public only needs to know whether those services are being provided as they wish them to be, and at a reasonable cost.

The only party we need is the one on the Fourth of July in the park. If, of course, that’s what the citizens want.