A failure of civic leadership

Now that the City Council vacancy farce has drawn to a close, it is high time to put an accurate label on it. How about “Authoritarian Disregard for the Citizens of Asheville”? Or maybe “Travesty of American Democracy”? Either or both seem to be appropriate and, unfortunately, accurate.

When City Council took it upon themselves to depart from the [recent practice] of filling a vacant seat with the next-highest vote recipient and concocted the present essay charade, they mistakenly substituted their judgment and opinion for those of the voters of Asheville. What qualified them to make such an illegitimate switch is a question that every citizen needs to be asking.

To say that the City Charter is silent on the specific process to use in this situation and therefore Council has the prerogative to select any method they see fit is to ignore the Council’s responsibility to adopt sound policy. According to this logic, picking a name out of the telephone book or throwing a dart at a tax map would be equally permissible. That Council has the authority to choose any policy they want is not the issue. The issue is whether or not the essay contest respects the underlying principles of American democracy.

Somewhere along the way, Council members have mistaken themselves for the credentials committee of a country club. Their recently quoted statements expressing the need for balance, a certain political stance or ability to work together clearly indicate that current Council members think that they are choosing someone whom they deem appropriate to sit with them. Nothing could be further from the reality of the situation in a representative form of government. Whom Council wants to have fill the vacant seat is totally irrelevant! They are on Council because the People wanted them there and voted accordingly—not because someone appointed them.

Would they be similarly blasé about the “power of the vote”—as they are about arbitrary appointment—if faced with arbitrary removal? Maybe they should be keeping in mind the fact that they are elected officials, not appointed officials. There is a reason for that distinction: It’s called representative form of government. It shouldn’t be a new concept, but it does raise the question.

It makes no more sense for five Council members to handpick one new member than it would to have one Council member handpick four new members—and it is equally as autocratic. However, using Council’s theory of elected representation, it would be perfectly acceptable and proper. The fact that you end up with someone who is neither elected nor a representative doesn’t seem to bother them. And that’s what is very bothersome. Have they all forgotten their civics 101 or fundamentals of American government in grade school and high school? Could they have been absent all that time? Maybe they all skipped class together.

It really doesn’t matter how they could overlook such a basic premise of a democracy. They did—and it’s to their collective shame. What to do about it? Realistically, it is too late to correct course now for the current vacancy. But it does not have to happen again. Urge Council to re-examine their self-centered and ill-considered decision. Tell them that it is not an acceptable process in 21st-century America. Ask them to realize the error of their thinking. Make correcting it a top priority for the reconstituted Council in 2009. Amend the City Charter to formalize the previous voter-centric process to fill vacancies. Asheville is too great a city to allow this failure of civic leadership to repeat itself.

— Douglas Campbell

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One thought on “A failure of civic leadership

  1. Cecil Bothwell

    I agree completely which is why I have made it part of my campaign platform in this year’s city council race. The clearest democratic choice might be to hold a special election when a seat is vacant, though voter turnout would almost certainly be low and the cost high. The fall-back solution with the combined value of recent precedent and respect for the city’s voters, is to appoint the runner-up from the previous election.

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