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All politics is local

SoVaNow.com / July 12, 2018
Here’s something to know about South Boston Councilman Bill Snead: He’s a heckuva guy. I know this because one winter day as I was out in the front yard with a garden hoe chunking up dirt like a sweaty lawncare loser — all part of the epic fail of me trying to get the grass to grow — a neighbor up the street passed by in his pickup truck and asked if it would be helpful for him to return with his aerator. Of course, this neighbor was Bill Snead. I had to decline the offer. I’d feel terrible about borrowing equipment from someone then wrecking it.

Ah, small town life. It has its charms. Chief among them is the way people are often so generous and helpful to one another. On the downside, sometimes your neighbor up the street is also someone that you’re compelled to write about on the job, and that can be awkward. Especially when the story you’re telling is the one about good people making bad arguments.

These things do happen.

On Monday, Snead set tempers on edge at the South Boston Town Council meeting when he accused other members of trampling on his voice as a councilman. The issue at hand was a motion by Tina Wyatt-Younger to reverse a prior decision by Council to shift the date of town elections from May to November. Town Council took this action in June, with advocates of the idea — Snead among them — arguing that rescheduling the town vote to coincide with the November general election (in years when no other major races are on the ballot) would boost citizen participation and enhance the legitimacy of South Boston’s elected leadership. These are familiar arguments, especially since I made them myself in this space back in May.

On a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Ed Owens breaking the tie on the six-member council, a new Council majority rescinded the June decision. Town elections will go back to being held in May. This course change got Snead all riled up. “We ought to make the front page [of the newspaper], ought to be on the TV stations, because I’m telling you what, this really sets a precedent. It’s upsetting,” he said Monday night. And he’s right: this is upsetting. It’s upsetting because Snead gets the basic point wrong: What happened isn’t the flouting of local democracy, it is democracy.

I’ve been covering local government for a long time. And one of the first rules drilled into the heads of everyone who plays in this sandbox is this: Existing boards cannot make decisions that tie the hands of future boards. This isn’t a totally hard-and-fast rule — stuff like repayment of debt can’t simply be waved off because the makeup of the local governing body happens to change — but even here the principle that current leadership cannot be bound by the decisions of prior boards is respected: a common type of borrowing is the “moral obligation bond,” which amounts to a pledge that debts will be repaid, but not by force of contract. In practical terms, there isn’t a huge difference between various types of municipal bonding authority, since no one is ever likely to renege on a loan agreement and ruin an entire community’s credit rating, but the moral obligation bond is just one way that the year-to-year (and month-to-month) independence of local elected officials is acknowledged.

A better example is this: South Boston Town Council can’t enact a code change in 1918 and declare it inviolate through 2018. It can’t do any such thing from June to July — which pretty much describes what happened Monday night. Snead became upset because a freshly minted Council decided to toss a vote by a prior Council into the recycle bin, and the emotion is certainly understandable, because most of us know the feeling of thinking we’ve won something only to find out later we’ve lost instead. But truth be told, the way that June vote went down wasn’t exactly pure as the driven snow. The vote then was 4-2, with Snead, Winston Harrell, Bob Hughes and Coleman Speece voting to shift the municipal elections to November, and Wyatt-Younger and Michael Byrd voting to preserve the status quo of May balloting. To her credit, Wyatt-Younger told members at the time why this action presented a problem.

Why? Because Coleman Speece was a lame duck at the time, having just lost his re-election bid in May, and his seat was set to be filled by Sharon Harris, the top vote-getter in the race, the following month. Wyatt-Younger argued — correctly, it turned out — that Harris would vote otherwise on the matter once she assumed her seat. So it’s not like anyone can argue they were blindsided by what happened Monday night when Harris, Byrd, Wyatt-Younger voted together with Mayor Owens to rescind the original decision. If this is supposed to be an affront to democracy, consider the alternative of a lame-duck board making a major policy change when everyone knows the new board will have a different majority and maybe different ideas about the way things should be. Majority rules — at every given point in time. It’s one thing when majorities are achieved by anti-democratic means (as we see all too often with gerrymandering and voting rights restrictions). But none of these controversies apply here. Everyone on South Boston Council gets a voice and a vote. To the victor go the spoils.

Look, I stick to my belief that South Boston would be better served by holding its elections in November. But I also don’t discount the argument put forth by Council members in favor of sticking with the May ballot: the calendar rewards candidates who go out and work for votes, and town contests are insulated from the partisan passions of higher-level campaigns, such as for president. (To be clear about this, Council had specifically scheduled the new November town elections so they would not coincide with presidential, congressional or gubernatorial races.) The subtext no one wants to talk about but is hanging out there anyway is that Council has now voted twice on the same issue along racial lines: black members voting in favor of May elections, white members voting in favor of November elections. Let’s cut to the chase here: If citizens of South Boston voted strictly according to racial lines, Council would lose most if not all of its African-American representatives, because the town has a white majority. If such a thing were to happen, it would truly be a travesty — making the community a poorer and diminished place in terms of hometown democracy. I don’t think this would happen, but it could. Majoritarian rule absent any minority representation is not a fantastical notion by any means.

You could mitigate this problem by adopting a ward system, just as the county has election districts that give candidates from minority communities a fair shot at winning local office. Since I’m on record in favor of November elections for the Town of South Boston, let me amend my original position and state that I’m also in favor of a robust ward system in town as well. But that’s a lot of work for the town to tackle. And let’s remember how this entire hullabaloo got started: as a debate over how to get people to take interest in town politics. Who am I kidding? I bet I lost nine-tenths of the potential readership for this column when it became clear the topic of the moment was boring local issues. Some problems, you just can’t legislate out of existence.



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