Greens Call for “Inclusive Democracy” to Increase Voter Turnout and Civic Engagement

Propose Structural Changes to Elections and City Government

With most prognosticators predicting another low turnout for the city elections on November 7, the Green Party candidates for mayor and common council gathered on city hall steps Friday to propose fundamental reforms to the structure and process of city elections and government that they said will give city residents more reason to vote and to participate in civic affairs between elections.

The Greens “Inclusive Democracy” platform includes instant runoff voting for executive offices, proportional representation on common council and the school board, public campaign financing, and neighborhood assemblies for community planning and participatory budgeting.

“Our city election is for sale to the highest bidders, with campaign contributions being the best investment that developers and city contractors seeking favors can make. The last money-drenched national election gave us a choice between a Republican billionaire reality TV con man and the Democrat most favored by the corporate elite, with their paid-for Democratic Party leadership rigging the party’s primaries. We need to change this plutocratic system, and Syracuse is a good place to start,” said Howie Hawkins, the Green mayoral candidate.

Neighborhood Assemblies

The Greens want to create direct democracy in neighborhood governments that function like New England Town Meetings, where all residents meet to formulate policies and programs for their community and elect officers to implement them. 20 to 25 Neighborhood Assemblies would replace the current eight TNT Area Planning Councils in order to better reflect the smaller natural neighborhoods of the city that people have names for and identify with.

The Greens said that Neighborhood Assemblies would have the power to budget a portion of the city budget for their own neighborhood programs and projects. They would participate in neighborhood planning. The power to make final permitting decisions for their neighborhoods within the framework of the city plan and zoning requirements would devolve from the city Planning Commission to the Neighborhood Assemblies.

“Community planning and participatory budgeting by Neighborhood Assemblies would give people strong reasons to participate in neighborhood and city affairs. These are not public hearings for so-called input to decision-makers. These are neighborhood governments in which every resident has an equal voice and vote and real power on matters of importance to them,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins also called for a Council of Neighborhood Assemblies composed of representatives elected by each Neighborhood Assembly. It would coordinate inter-neighborhood policy formulation and projects and express the council’s views to the mayor, common council, board of education, and representatives to county, state, and federal governments.

New York City is one 
more than 1,500 cities worldwide with “participatory budgeting” that give local residents a direct say in allocating funds, in this case $1 million per council district for capital projects. New York City also has a system of community boards to advise the mayor on local development, but they are not nearly as inclusive and powerful as the Neighborhood Assemblies the Greens propose for Syracuse.

Proportional Representation

The Greens called for replacing single-member-district, winner-take-all elections with proportional representation on common council and the board of education.

“Winner-take-all elections over-represent majorities and exclude minorities. Proportional representation gives each party its fair share of representation in proportion to the vote it receives. Every major democracy on the planet uses proportional representation other than the three countries at the core of the old British colonial empire – the U.S., the U.K., and Canada,” said Eric Graf, the Green candidate for 2nd district councilor.

“Proportional representation will increase voter turnout because every vote counts toward electing more of your party’s candidates. Our current system of plurality winners in single member districts means that most districts are effectively one-party districts for the majority party. That decreases voter turnout because the result is rarely in question, so why vote?” Graf added.

Across the world, legislative bodies elected by proportional representation have higher voter turnout and elect more women, more ethnic minorities, and more different parties’ candidates than the single-member-district, plurality-wins system dominant in the United States.

Instant Runoff Voting

With five candidates on the ballot for mayor and a high likelihood that the next mayor will be elected with the majority voting for someone else, the Greens said it was time to institute instant runoff voting (IRV) for the city executive offices of mayor, auditor, and council president. With IRV, voters rank each candidate in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority on the first round, the votes for the last place candidate are distributed to their supporters’ second choice. This “instant runoff” process continues until a candidate wins a majority.

“Under IRV, we would never again elect a mayor who did not win a majority of voters by the end of the instant runoff process,” Graf said.

The voters of the State of Maine approved a citizen-initiated referendum last year to enact IRV for state elections. However, the Democrats and Republicans in the Maine legislature passed a bill last month to block implementation. But the number of cities now using IRV for municipal elections is growing and includes San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and Portland ME.

Public Campaign Finance

The Greens want to establish a system of public funding of city election campaigns that provides sufficient funds to a candidate to reach their district’s voters. All ballot-qualified candidates who refuse to accept private money would qualify for public funding. 
Under the so-called “clean money” system of full public campaign financing, candidates would qualify for equal public campaign grants by raising a reasonable number of $5 contributions from voters in their district to demonstrate support. Arizona and Maine use the clean money system of full public campaign finance for state legislative elections. The overwhelming majority of Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and other third party and independent candidates opt in to public campaign financing in both states.

“City elections should not be for sale. Elections are public functions. The campaigns should be funded by the public, not private special interests, so the voters, not the moneyed interests, own and control the process,” said Serena Seals, the Green candidate for 4th district councilor.

The Greens estimate that public campaign financing in which all candidates for municipal office opt in would cost taxpayers in the range of $10 to $20 per year per voter for general elections. The low estimate assumes two parties with full slates. The high estimate assumes for parties with full slates. The campaign grants in this estimate range from $25,000 for district council races to $650,000 for mayoral candidates, which are larger than most privately financed campaigns in Syracuse spend today.
“Those are small prices to pay for real democracy,” Seals said.

Economic Democracy

The Greens said that “inclusive democracy” includes the economy. “We can’t have real political democracy if the productive wealth of our society, and the power that comes with it, is concentrated in a few hands. We also need economic democracy, including worker co-ops and publicly-owned utilities and broadband,” said Frank Cetera, the Green candidate for councilor-at-large.
Cetera said that sidewalks should be a publicly-owned utility. “It is time for the Department of Public Works to be given responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and snow removal as it is for city streets. It is inexcusable that people have to walk in the streets when it snows – children walking to school, parents with strollers, seniors, mail carriers, and disabled people in wheelchairs. On many blocks, the sidewalks are impassible even without snow for many of these people because they are in such disrepair.”

Cetera said the old way of fining property owners for failure to maintain and remove snow from sidewalks has been a failure for decades. City responsibility for sidewalk snow removal is assumed in Rochester NY, Burlington VT, Fairbanks AK, and many other cities and towns. One estimate for public sidewalk snow removal puts the cost at $7 to $10 per premise per year.

Metropolitan Government based on Federalism and Proportional Representation

The Greens also advocate a federated from of local direct democracy for a countywide metropolitan municipality. While they reject the governance proposal of Consensus Commission as unfair to the city, they said a democratically structured metropolitan government is needed because Greater Syracuse is one social and economic unit and metro-government is the only way to desegregate housing and schools, to have an enforceable land use plan that stops sprawl and redevelops declining urban areas, and to have effective and responsive governance of shared services and infrastructure.

Federalism means the city and the towns would be sub-jurisdictions that retain important local planning, permitting, and budgeting powers within the framework of a metropolitan land use plan and other metro-wide policies.

The Greens want the legislative body of the metropolitan government to be elected by proportional representation instead of the single-member-district, winner-take-all system proposed by the Consensus Commission.

“The winner-take-all form of metropolitan government would only replicate the steamrolling of city interests by suburban and rural interests that we now see in the county legislature. By incorporating the principles of federalism and proportional representation, we could form a metropolitan municipality that combines the advantages of both local participation and metropolitan coordination in the formulation of policy and the administration of shared services and infrastructure,” Hawkins said.
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Howie Hawkins is the 2017 Green candidate for Syracuse Mayor
Hawkins for Mayor