Commentary: Why New Bern’s ward system is necessary

The board of aldermen without a ward system might as well look like this photo, taken just before new board members took their seats on Dec. 12. Post photo

 

I keep hearing that New Bern’s ward system is outdated and unnecessary, and that all members of the Board of Aldermen should be elected at-large, the same way the mayor is elected.

Getting rid of the ward system would accomplish two things:

  • It would put serving on the board out of reach for all but anyone who is wealthy enough to buy their way into office.
  • It would leave New Bern’s less affluent neighborhoods without local representation and focus the spending of tax dollars on parts of the city that need it the least.

Imagine a city without a ward system in which you have a problem and aren’t getting anywhere at city hall. Who would you call? Would you pick an alderman at random? Or call the mayor?

Now, at least, you have an advocate who lives in or near your neighborhood and who is directly responsive to your needs and, if he or she fails to do the job, can be unseated much more easily than someone who is elected at-large.

Without the ward system, money would flow to a specific few who would do the best job representing those who have money.

The closest we have come to an at-large alderman just left office: E.T. Mitchell. When Pat Schaible resigned her seat as Ward 3 alderman, Mitchell was hand-picked by certain members of the Board of Aldermen.

During one of those “public meetings” when it is clear the board had no interest in listening to what the public said, the board room was filled with people supported one applicant for the job: Retired New Bern fire chief Bobby Aster. A petition was presented with hundreds of signatures from people supporting Aster.

E.T. Mitchell wasn’t at the meeting, and there was not one person in the audience there to support her being appointed as alderman.

In short, the board ignored the wishes of Ward 3 residents by appointing Mitchell over Aster.

Mayor Dana Outlaw said Mitchell brought experience and skills to the board, whereas all Aster brought was his experience as fire chief (his job before he retired). Never mind that Aster had filled many key positions in city hall, up to and including city manager.

So what did Mitchell accomplish during her year as an alderman?

She worked on goals set out for her by the mayor and other members of the board (which means, mainly, Ward 6 Alderman Jeffrey Odham).

On its face that sounds great, but it put her in a sort of unique position on the board: no other alderman or the mayor had their agenda set for them by other members of the board.

While Ward 3 may have been represented, it was the only ward during that year whose alderman’s main purpose was accomplishing tasks set out for her by aldermen from other wards.

Ward 3 is a fairly affluent ward: it includes New Towne, parts of Ghent, Taberna and Carolina Colours — just the sort of people who would spend money to elect their kind of alderman. Yet their wishes went ignored. I wonder, how did that make them feel?

Now imagine a board of aldermen where all seven members come from New Bern’s most affluent neighborhoods. How well do you think those members would represent residents of New Bern’s middle-income and low-income neighborhoods?

I remember a “let them eat cake” conversation between Pat Schaible and my wife. This was at a time when the Board of Aldermen was trying to shove the City Market idea down the throats of the Farmer’s Market board.

My wife was alarmed that the City Market concept included a band shell. City Market, located on First Street, backs up to the Ghent neighborhood, and my wife pointed out to Schaible that there are babies living right across the street from the band shell location, not to mention a whole neighborhood of families nearby.

Schaible said she would love to have a band shell in her neighborhood. I rather doubt that.

But Schaible wasn’t representing residents of her ward. She was representing “the city.”

You have to be careful when your elected leaders represent “the city” over its residents. Just ask people in Ferguson, Mo., and Flynt, Mich., about that.

Keep power as local as possible, and the only way to do that is preserving the ward system.

 

 

December 26th, 2017 by
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