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Do Voters Believe That Elections Work?

On November 10th in a Special Election Cheyenne’s voters will decide whether to transfer executive power from their elected mayor to an administrator working for the City Council. Beyond the details of the proposal, Cheyenne voters must answer a bigger question: Do voters believe that elections work?

This question is about whether the American experiment of representative government, fought so hard for by America’s founding generation, has worked. Cheyenne’s voters are asked to revisit the foundational questions of how to organize governmental power, of which Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison wrestled with so thoroughly in the early years of our republic.

The true genius of our founding generation was their dual recognition of what governmental power is and what pressures and temptations mere humans who wield it invariably face. Alexander Hamilton, wrote, “A fondness for power is implanted in most men; and it is natural to abuse it when acquired.” Hamilton’s political opponent, Thomas Jefferson, concluded that concentrating all of the powers of government in one branch is inherently despotic, “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one.”

Even George Washington warned in his farewell address go guard against usurpation of power from one branch of government by other branches because, while consolidated power might be good in one case, “It is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.” In other words, even if disturbing the balance looks good, it won’t pay off in the long run. All three founders recognized the ever-present temptation for one branch of government to take power from other branches as a means to remove barriers to its preferred policies. The City Administrator proposal serves as a clear example of this temptation.

Defending the right to vote for the government executive and protecting separation of power in Cheyenne is a strong enough reason to reject the City Administrator proposal. However, arguments for the ballot question disregard these principals and rely on several faulty assumptions and unanswered questions instead. These mechanical issues also justify rejecting the City Administrator ordinance.

The founding generation knew that executives appointed from elsewhere had inherently divided loyalties. Might a hired City Administrator make recommendations to the City Council based only on what is best for Cheyenne, or will the recommendation simply be fashioned to look good on a resume for the administrator’s next job application? An elected strong mayor solves this problem. The Mayor already has a stake in Cheyenne’s success — voters vet this in the election process.

The founders also protected voters and taxpayers from manipulation using salary changes between elections. However, City Administrator proponents say, “you get what you pay for” when hiring a manager or administrator to justify the much higher executive salary than Cheyenne currently pays its mayor. They also claim an administrator will improve efficiency and reduce costs elsewhere to offset the higher salary. However, government efficiency is hard to measure and is meaningless if the services are unwanted or unneeded. Anyway, surrendering the right to vote is too high a price to pay for “governmental efficiency.”

These arguments also diminish the extreme increase in salary taxpayers will pay. The founding fathers expected public service from citizens as a civic duty, not to get rich. Cheyenne currently pays the mayor only $95,000 compared to the $192,000 Casper pays its City Manager. Taxpayers will also pay for an expensive search for each new administrator and severance packages to any administrator that the City Council fires. For example, Grand Junction, Colorado recently disclosed that it has paid over $400,000 in severance to four former City Managers since 2000. That means that Grand Junction is going through one manager every 4 years on average and is paying each former manager $100,000 to stop working. Might these added costs eat up any hypothetical efficiency gains?

Limited government as America’s Founders envisioned is not too complex for elected representatives to manage. Cheyenne is neither too large for an elected mayor to effectively manage, nor too small to find qualified candidates for mayor. Other cities have proved elections can work. As a city grows, the larger population increases the pool of qualified candidates.

Ultimately, Cheyenne voters have to decide whether they really believe in elections, the right to vote, and self-government as envisioned by America’s revolutionary generation. A hired city administrator does not guarantee success. Some will be good. Others will not be. They will all be expensive and none will be directly accountable to voters at the ballot box.

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