A Constant Question: Why No Wards?


One of the side benefits of our every-third-year election for City Council is being pushed to consider all of the interesting ideas raised by the various candidates. This year is no exception, as many potentially useful concepts have been introduced. One idea, raised by independent candidate Rich Williamson, is actually a push to revive the way Alexandria used to hold council elections by ward rather than as an at-large election.

Williamson is not the first person to raise this as an issue, just the most recent. Williamson made the idea of city governance revolving around neighborhoods the centerpiece of his campaign, and favors dividing Councils representation into wards to bring government closer to the people.

Williamsons stance does raise the question of why we elect our school board solely by wards, but our council completely at-large. People throughout Alexandria seem to think the ward idea has merit, but dont see a compelling reason to change the current system. I cant think of anything that makes school board elections unique, said Melynda Wilcox, president of Alexandrias PTA Council. On the other hand I have no real sense that theres anything wrong with the current system for council.

One reason for the dichotomy is that the structure of and method of selecting Alexandrias Council and School Board evolved separately. Prior to 1921, Alexandria had a system of local government that was described as archaic and dysfunctional by those advocating its replacement. The old system consisted of an eight-member Board of Aldermen, and a 16-member Common Council — all elected by ward — with numerous commissions reporting to each, plus an elected mayor with veto power over both elected councils. Judge James R. Caton said in the September 27, 1921 Alexandria Gazette that the old system was founded largely on distrust.

Caton was a leader in the movement to replace the old, cumbersome two-council and mayor system with a council-city manager system. This type of system was rapidly being adopted by small and medium-sized cities around the country in the early 1920s. What the reformers were chiefly after was a non-elected city manager who would be a professional administrator and not a politician.

Caton said, The present plan is not suited to the present age where organization and coordination are necessary to meet the pressing needs of our city.

The reformers viewed the abolition of voting by wards as secondary to establishing a council-city manager system, but it was part of their overall drive to simplify elections and turn Alexandria into a grand city. With a Council of five elected at large and a competent city manager, Alexandria will become worthy of her splendid destiny. She is bound to become a great city the Gazette editorialized on September 27, 1921. The new plan passed overwhelmingly the following week and was implemented for the June 1922 elections, in which William Albert Smoot, Thomas J. Fannon, Arthur H. Bryant, Robert S. Jones, and Edmund F. Ticer were the first five Councilmen elected under the new system.

Conversely, Alexandrias elected School Board is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until 1993, School Board members were not elected but were appointed by the City Council. According to Connie Ring, a former School Board member who was a leader in the drive to elect School Boards, many in the city felt that the old system had become too political and too much of a patronage system for Council members to reward supporters. Election by wards, which was then back in vogue because many viewed it as a way to promote more minority participation in politics, was again the secondary issue involved — after the concept of electing Board members.

Those arguing for voting by a ward system generally cite increased minority representation and greater participatory democracy as its primary benefits. In a small ward neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000 people, there is a greater chance that an ethnic or political minority will be concentrated in large enough numbers to elect someone who represents their group to Council. There is a sense of heightened participation because voters feel closer to those elected as they are literally from their neighborhoods.

Other reasons often cited for a ward system include the thought that it reduces the cost of elections, as candidates only have to take their message to one section of a city rather than the whole city. Also, issues are often more clearly communicated from constituent to elected official, and a ward representative is viewed as being likely to be more responsive to small but frequently important issues. There is real merit to the ward system, according to Chris Marston, Chair of the Alexandria City Republican Committee. Issues become so diffuse when there are so many candidates to choose from.

Marston is concerned that under Alexandrias current at-large system parts of the city are over-represented and parts are under-represented. On the last Council, four of seven members (including Mayor Bill Euille) live in Del Ray. (Council member) Del Pepper is the only one who lives west of Quaker Lane.

The ward system of voting also has its drawbacks and detractors. Drawbacks include a tendency for more conflict as Council members often champion the narrow interests of their neighborhoods over the broader interests of the whole city. This more narrow approach also leads to vote trading.

The end result can be less efficient decision-making without a coherent vision for the city as a whole. Wards are not a good idea at least not for anything but very large cities, State Senator Patsy Ticer said.

Alexandria is too small for districts. It would only divide us up further. Everybody would be voting for his little five-block area, Ticer said. Data supports Ticers contention. According to the National League of Cities, very few cities with populations under 200,000 use a straight ward system of voting. (Alexandrias population is approximately 140,000.)

Wards are inappropriate for Alexandria, and Ive always felt that way, said Ticer, formerly Alexandrias mayor and a Council member. She said the father of her late husband Jack was one of the people instrumental in instituting Alexandrias current Council-manager system. Edmund Ticer, in addition to being one of the original five Council members under the new system, later served as Alexandrias mayor from 1931-34.

Not only does Ticer think ward voting is a bad idea for City Council, she also dislikes its use in the citys School Board elections. We did a better job and had more diverse representation on the School Board when it was appointed by City Council, Ticer said. She does not buy the argument that districts make it easier to elect minorities. Alexandria is very egalitarian, she said.

Judge Caton, in 1921, gave similar reasons for supporting an at-large system. The (at-large) Council will represent the whole city and not any particular ward or section, and be more likely to conduct the affairs of the city from a comprehensive view of the whole situation, and the citys interest as a whole, and will plan all public improvements and betterments with a definite view to the benefit of the whole community.