By George Tyler
Published March 23rd 2006 in The Essex Reporter
Efforts to unite the town and village under one government might succeed, but that doesnít mean the political rivalry between village and town will go away. Current plans call for the new seven-member governing counsel to be chosen at large from the entire community in winner-take-all elections. Terms will be staggered so that three seats might be up for election one year and four the next.
Ad hoc merger committee member Irene Wrenner is concerned that because the population of the town is larger than the villageís, future candidates from the town could come to dominate the board if elections were decided along former village-town lines.
To avoid that scenario, Wrenner, who lives in the town and was chosen by the town select board to represent the town on the task force, has been urging other task force members to consider writing into the new charter that the new community will choose Ďproportional representationí voting to select its municipal officers.
Wrenner explains that ĎPRí voting is similar to the instant runoff voting used by Burlington in its recent mayoral election. Voters give their preferences among candidates in descending order. Because of the current population dynamics in the village and town, village residents would be mathematically guaranteed to elect at least one candidate in any community-wide race with three open seats, said Wrenner. She said the technique is recommended by the National Civics League, a non-profit, non-partisan organization which has been advising local communities on democracy and civics issues since 1894.
"Voters rank their choices on the ballot similar to instant run off voting," says Wrenner. "In a winner take all system you can have winners that donít have a majority of the voters in the community behind them, and almost half the ballots might be wasted. PR overcomes that problem. You end up consistently with 93 percent of the voters electing a winner. Everyone has at least one person on the board that they voted for."
Wrenner points to the present make-up of the Essex Town Select board as an example of what might happen without proportional representation voting. Presently, there are no select board members from the village despite the fact that slightly less than half of the entire town population lives in the village. Also, the last three candidates from the village who ran for the select board were defeated by incumbents.
Wrenner fears that in a merged community with at-large elections, people from the former village section might become so disenfranchised that they no longer participate in local municipal elections. "And I think thatís exactly the opposite of where we want to be going with this," said Wrenner. "We want to get more people involved in the process; not turn them away. I mean here we have this opportunity to do something exciting, to really pump people up."
Instead, she says, the response from other board members has gone from polite interest to blunt refusal to even consider it.
Says Wrenner, "I had one task force members tell me not to send him any more information because his mine is closed on the subject. Imagine that. Hereís this person supposed to be representing the interests of thousands of people and heís telling me his mind is closed on the subject of how we should design voting in the new town."
For those who believe PR might be a Trojan Horse for some hidden agenda, Wrenner points out that when the US went into Iraq, it had the new Iraqi government use PR to elect its parliament. "They use PR in Northern Ireland specifically to ease tension between Catholics and Protestants," jokes Wrenner. "Well, if it can keep Irish Protestants and Catholics happy, maybe it can keep people in the village and town happy."
She believes other task force members are resistant to the idea because of entrenched beliefs of how things are supposed to work. For that reason, even though the question of which voting method to use in the new community is still on the table, Wrenner doesnít hold out much hope that the committee will reconsider PR.
"Iíve been told that it might jeopardize the merger if we had something like this, because voters might not understand it," says Wrenner. "That argument doesnít hold water as far as Iím concerned. I mean voters in Burlington figured out the instant runoff concept. You donít have to get too far into the details to understand how it works. I think the bigger danger is not doing something like this."
Wrenner stresses that as an ad hoc committee member she is not trying to make an end run around the merger task force, and is just acting as a private citizen in trying to spread the word to community members in the village and town who might then urge their representatives on the merger committee to take a second look.
"When I interviewed with the select board for the position I promised them I would give everything I could to this effort. Iím really doing this in good faith," said Wrenner. "I really want this merger to happen. Iím doing all I can to get us into the new century as a new community. Iím new to the town. I donít understand all the political baggage and am only concerned about it to the extent of knowing what I need to know to get around it. Iíve got lots of friends in the village and town who are like me Ė theyíve moved here recently and they donít understand any of this stuff and they just want to see it over. I guess thatís where Iím coming from too."