We’re past filing deadlines now and so we know our choices for the top two slots for the fall in each legislative district race. As others have noticed, this cycle’s attrition rate exceeds the norm and wondered why. Explanations include the usual list of suspects: More time with family, stress of a polarized political world, etc. But as one who served in the Legislature from Mercer Island, I have a different perspective.
First, keep in mind that I grew up in the city manager system. A product of the early 20th Century progressive era, the city manager system recognized that the technology and complexity of the late industrial age affected government as well as industry. The skills, knowledge, and experience required to provide modern public services like roads, water and sewage systems and social services required trained and experienced professionals.
Civil service reforms addressed part of this need, but often the task of finding competent executive leadership through political elections failed. City management as a profession, developing public-sector chief executive officers over decades of their careers, became a popular solution across the Western United States, at least in newer cities organized through the mid-20th Century.
Central to the city manager form is the process of selection and accountability. It’s simple. The manager works for the city council. The job’s tenure is simple, too. Four votes of seven and you’re a city manager. Three votes of seven and you’re a former city manager. All this is clearly understood by both sides when executing the employment contract.
Consequently, accountability lies clearly and completely with the city council. Council doesn’t like what the city’s doing? Get a new city manager. If citizens don’t like what the city’s doing? Vote out the council.
Contrast this with the 18th Century American legislative design. Don’t like a policy? Talk to your representative. They’ll tell you it’s the Senate. Or the Executive.
When I was in the Legislature, we called those in the other party the opposition, but we both called those across the rotunda in the other chamber the enemy, blaming failure on the other branch or on the governor. But getting things done?
Both the legislative and the city manager forms assume part-time policy makers. Most every state legislature remains part time and I believe every city-manager-based city council consists of part-time policy makers. At best this increases the diversity of experience, the pool of potential candidates, and their connections to their constituents.
In my experience, this works well at the city level. As a council member and mayor (typically the mayor of a city-manager form serves as the “president of the council” never as an executive), I could continue my career at Boeing, have a family, and serve. Time management could be a challenge, but it was a doable balancing act.
As a legislator, I spent at least two to three months each year in Olympia. While some legislators can commute from home, I found the two and a half to three hour a day commute problematic, so ended up living temporarily in Olympia during sessions. But, even setting aside the commute, the simple fact the Legislature took big blocks of every year undercut any ability to deliver value to a day job and stunted any career path.
In the old days, pre-MacDonald Douglas merger, Boeing had a policy encouraging employees to become citizen legislators, making it possible to serve and remain employed. Over the years, many Boeing employees and managers, myself included, took advantage of that support, but make no mistake, even in those halcyon days career progression halted at best. Few companies retain such policies today.
During my time in Olympia, I often mused on alternatives. Did we have to be encased in the amber of a 18th Century agrarian-based structure? Few of us have the luxury of a winter season to mosey across the state on horseback to serve a few months in the Legislature. Even farmers work year round.
So, what if we stopped having concentrated legislative sessions? What if we shifted to legislative weekends, from Friday to Sunday twice a month? And spread them around the state? In a few hours legislators can get from just about any corner of the state to any other.
The first weekends, I mused, could be committee work and the second weekends devoted to committee action and full sessions. The Senate and House could meet in different cities and expose the legislators and the public to the processes and diversity of the state.
Notice the benefits: Losing every other weekend protects most of the week and alternate weekends for jobs and families. It also exposes legislators and more the state’s population to the work of a pluralistic democracy. There would be scheduling and logistic issues, but hybrid technology helps with logistics.
My suggestion may have flaws, but thinking about how to make legislatures more transparent, accountable, and part-time endeavors for ordinary working folks seems worth the effort. Democracy, endangered in many ways, depends on it.