Charleston City Councilwoman Jennifer Pharr’s proposal to cut city wards in half raises an interesting question: Why does a city with fewer than 50,000 residents have one of the largest governing bodies in the United States?
West Virginia’s capital city has 20 council members representing geographical wards, and six at-large members. The mayor also votes on proposed policies, so that’s 27 people deciding any given issue.
As Lori Kersey reported in the Gazette-Mail, of the 25 most populous cities in the country, only New York (total population 8.8 million), Chicago (2.7 million) and Nashville (678,000) have larger city councils than Charleston. Less than an hour down Interstate 64, Huntington, which has a similar population, just below 50,000, has an 11-member council.
Charleston’s council grew over many years as the city got larger but has done away with only one seat since reaching 21 wards in 1983.
Pharr points out that, with so many seats, many council members run unopposed in elections (there were only six contested council races in 2018). The sheer size of the council also seems unwieldy, given the city’s population, and Pharr says that some committees and groups don’t fulfill their obligations because members simply don’t show up. Issues that need to be addressed often fade into the background, according to Pharr, because too many people are involved in the process, and they can’t get on the same page.
Those against the proposal say smaller councils typically have full-time members who are paid more to do the job (although that isn’t the case with Huntington) and that council members would be overwhelmed by constituent needs, if fewer members were representing larger areas. While some might counter that making the job tougher would attract better candidates, that’s not guaranteed.
Here’s the issue we see that downsizing the City Council might help address: Charleston sometimes operates more as numerous fiefdoms under a common lord than a united city working toward collective improvement. Sure, every city has its dividing lines and unique areas, but it’s hard to think of one that has more than Charleston.
There’s downtown, the West Side, the East End, Kanawha City, South Hills, the North Side, etc. All of these places have things that make them different, but they’re contiguous within the city and relatively close together. There are subdivisions within subdivisions. What makes “Elk City” different from the West Side? What makes “the Flats” different from the rest of Kanawha City, which actually isn’t its own city?
Anyone who lives in these various subsectors could give you a reasonable answer, and income is always one of the key ingredients, but it’s not the only one. And many of the answers a Charleston resident would give come from decades of separation being baked-in, aided in part by the size and geography of the City Council.
It could be argued that having one council member for roughly every 2,000 people in Charleston is a good thing. That level of representation should magnify the voice of the people and, sometimes, it does. But it also clearly brings about a level of dysfunction.
Charleston’s population is continuing to drop, and solving the problems the city faces will require more unity from all of its areas, examining commonalities despite differences. A leaner City Council bringing larger constituencies together could help. We’re not saying Pharr’s proposal is the answer. The city shouldn’t be hasty in cutting down the size of its council, but it should seriously explore the concept.