California is in trouble. Nowhere is this more evident than in its cities. Once bustling centers of commerce and culture now are showcases for dirty streets, empty storefronts and the homeless encampments. Many people would blame the present circumstance on the pandemic or our current economic woes, but these are actually symptoms of an underlying problem that few people think about.
The fundamental cause of urban decay is the dilution of popular representation. Urban residents are not in charge of their own cities. Local councils and boards of supervisors have so few elected officials representing so many citizens that residents have little chance to meet – let alone influence – their representative. Because of that imbalance, special interest groups – public employee unions, developers, etc. – have all the power.
We can fix this situation – and in a manner that does not upset any partisan balance. Significantly expanding representation in California cities can bring about the urban renaissance California city dwellers so desperately need – by giving individuals the power to pressure their representatives to focus on community issues.
Cities are symbolic if not synonymous with civilization. Think London, Paris, Rome and Athens, the last birthplace of popular self-government. San Francisco and Los Angeles grew into iconic American cities recognized throughout the world. They are two of the oldest cities in California, yet they have some of the worst representation numbers in the country.
San Francisco has only 12 supervisors (which serve as city council members, given that San Francisco is a unified city and county) for about 842,000 people. After the California Convention of 1879 that created the legislation for city charters, San Francisco’s City Council had nine members, representing 26,000 inhabitants each.
The great chronicler of California history, Hubert Howe Bancroft, noted from his book about the California Constitutional Convention of 1879, that the expansion of the San Francisco Council to 12 members would allow the city to enjoy unprecedented prosperity:
There were expressions in the articles on counties and cities in the new constitution, which looked as if the city of San Francisco might become an independent state like Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence, and other free cities of the Middle Ages, whose histories are in the past. The city was to have two houses of legislation; it was to have a mayor, or other chief executive officer.
Even then, political observers knew that an expansion of representation could thrive in epic proportions.
Of California’s 58 counties, only San Francisco has more than five members of the county board of supervisors. The city of Los Angeles, which has nearly 4 million citizens, has a 15-member City Council where each member represents over 260,000 citizens. The county of Los Angeles has close to 10 million residents and five supervisors who each represent 2 million people. Those numbers are absurd.
At what point do citizens-to-elected-official ratios become so out of whack as to render the idea of citizen representation effectively meaningless?
Is there any reason cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles couldn’t be governed by popular assemblies, with one council member for every 25,000, 10,000, 5,000 or even 3,000 people?
Aside from politicians and interest groups, who could fear making districts smaller and effectively putting the citizens more directly in charge of their own governments?
California reformers have recognized this problem to some degree, as a few city councils are expanded from five to seven members, usually as the result of lawsuits by underrepresented residents. Larger cities are changing from at-large elections, where every council member runs a citywide race, to district elections, but far more needs to be done.
When one activist proposed a statewide initiative that would have expanded Capitol representation, critics claimed that having thousands of citizen representatives would be “unwieldy.” But consider what the ancient Athenians and Romans accomplished long before the modern technology.
The word democracy means the government of the “Demes,” who in Greece were the artisans and farmers. The ancient city of Athens had a bicameral government with a 6,000 member Ecclesia and a Senate of 800 for a population of about 100,000 citizens. Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, was asked why he expanded the Senate. “Because no one could possibly bribe them all,” he responded.
Rome was known for its Republic, its roads, aqueducts and oftentimes its Senate. Rome and its various colonies had many differing sized legislative bodies, but there always was at least one representative for every 5,000 people – far better than we have now in most Western cities. The Roman Senate had as many as 2,000 citizens for a population far smaller than modern California.
We need not look to the ancients. Dozens of modern European cities are thriving under the governance of popular assemblies. Vienna, which for 2022 ranks atop the Economist’s list of the world’s “most livable cities,” is governed by an assembly of 100 members representing 1.765 million citizens. That’s a ratio of one representative for every 17,650 citizens. What do the Austrians know that Californians have forgotten?
Today in America’s largest cities, a small cadre of powerful city council members are generally insulated from urban blight, failing schools, poverty and crime. They hold office with their eyes often set upon their next political offices and not the problems they are supposed to solve in their current offices.
In small legislative bodies, each elected official wields great power. This often leads to a form of protectionism where unions representing government workers elect their own, who in turn support them by boosting pay and resisting reform.
Large representative bodies mean small districts, which in turn mean more competitive elections that can be won without relying on big money. Defeating an incumbent in a small district can be accomplished with flyers, yard signs and shoe leather without the need for television commercials. When the districts are small, each vote has greater value and each office holder has to be attentive to the individual voters.
As Aristotle noted, “small bodies are more open to corruption, whether by actual money or influence, than large ones.” And it all seems to come down to this one concept of dispersing power rather than concentrating it.
Yet almost 70 percent of cities in California have just five members on their councils. About 30 percent have seven members and three have nine members, while Los Angeles has 15. The population of a city has almost no direct correlation with the number of representatives.
Legislative bodies should operate as markets for ideas. Larger representation is collaborative. It involves a greater diversity of ideas and people who engage in active government. Smaller bodies shut out views that cut against the grain.
As California looks for new ideas to address its intractable problems, it needs to re-learn the fundamental lessons of democracy by improving representation and empowering the people.
Michael Warnken works on court cases relating to representation and other similar issues. He is an advisor for the nonprofit Citizens Rising.