By Noah Dawson
Our city council is broken. I've spent the last few months speaking at city council meetings, offering solutions to help fix some of the issues. Again and again, I call on our city council to deliver actual representation to the people of the city, but, again and again, my words seem to fall on deaf ears. This week, though, was different. No, they didn't suddenly start listening. This week, I am out of town visiting family, so I wasn't able to make it to the city council meeting. Still, I wanted to talk a bit about actual representation, and why it matters, so I decided it would be a good opportunity to write a summary of my thoughts on the subject.
The function of an elected deliberative legislature is to represent the people. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, who influenced the design of the American political system, justified government by putting forth the idea that a legitimate government rests upon the consent of the governed. What many miss in reading this is that it means what it says, not what many wrongly interpret it to say. Legitimate government rests on the consent of the governed, not just on the majority of the governed. All voices must be given representation, and that's where an elected deliberative legislature comes into play. If two thirds of people support an action, it's not the job of the legislature to just pass it. The job of the legislature is to pass it in a way representative of how the people feel. A third of the legislature has a duty to give voice to those who dissent. The action should be passed, but in a way reflective of how the people feel. Otherwise, the government is ignoring the will of the part of the people opposed to the action, thus meaning the legislature is acting in a way which denigrates its legitimacy. This is the reason our state and national legislatures are structured the way they are, in order to give representation. When a party is out of power, they aren't expected to stop representing the minority. Since the people in general are rarely, if ever, unanimous in their opinions, legislatures should rarely, if ever, vote unanimously. This doesn't only apply to Congress, it applies to local city councils, including our own.
One might ask, if the outcome of a 3:2 vote is the same as a 5:0 vote, why this might matter. I personally often hear members of our city government justify their unanimous votes by saying that a majority of Amarillo residents support their ideas. At the last city council meeting, I lamented a recent vote in which changes to the trash pickup system were unanimously approved. In response, the city council spoke about how a “majority” of impacted residents supported the change. It seemed to me that they were proving that they had ignored my weekly pleas for representation. Representation means more than taking a symbolic stand. If the voices of the people are ignored, they grow apathetic. When people are apathetic, they often don't vote, and they don't show up to public meetings. Amarillo has seen this. Our mayor claims she was elected in a landslide, but turnout for the election was tiny. If people aren't engaged, guessing the will of the people is a shot in the dark.
It is the job of our city council to represent the entire city. More often than not, they fail to do that. We the people deserve better, and if our leaders can't do better, they should resign. If they don't, they may at some point come to learn that the apathy caused by a lack of representation cannot last forever. The people won't stay silent forever. There will be a tipping point, and election day will come.