A number of the responses have proposed undoing old reforms, in particular eliminating term limits, going back to at-large elections, and reinstating a council/manager form of government. The arguments behind these suggestions are all reasonable: Term limits may prompt elected officials to focus on the short-term, district elections may lead to parochialism, and city managers may do a better job of managing the city bureaucracy than an elected mayor. But it is important to remember that these are all hypotheses: none of these arguments have been supported with hard evidence, for the simple reason that it is quite difficult to empirically document why political actors behave in a certain way. Take, for example, district elections. How would we be able to determine whether an elected official representing a district supported a particular piece of legislation because they prioritize the needs of their district over the city as a whole (as opposed to supporting it because it is a good piece of legislation)? To really answer this question, we would need to get inside the heads of elected officials, which is not possible. The second best option is to do a detailed study comparing the behavior of elected officials who are elected at-large versus those elected in districts. This could be done (there are some cities that elect part of their council at-large and others from districts, such as Tampa, Fla.), but to my knowledge this research has yet to be conducted.

We should be careful about assuming that a reform is going to have a particular outcome, even if the argument behind it is sound. The proponents of a strong mayor system make this mistake by assuming that strong mayors will be more accountable to the public than either city managers or council members (plausible, but by no means guaranteed). Further, all reforms have unintended consequences that could undermine any benefits gained. So, continuing with the district elections example, even if electing the council at-large prompts elected officials to consider the interests of the city as a whole, it may also increase the costs of running for office, preventing everyone except the very wealthy and very well-connected from seeking a council seat. Just because a reform has some positive benefit doesn’t mean it is a worthwhile reform.


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