NWA EDITORIAL | Power to the local people: Reject the suggestion of partisan municipal elections

Partisan municipal elections make no sense

Here's an idea sure to make a lot of sense to most Arkansans: Let's make our city councils function just like Congress.

And by "a lot of sense," we mean none at all.

We hear -- and our readers did, too -- that there may be a piece of legislation coming in the state's General Assembly to make city elections partisan. In Jan. 8 edition of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, municipal leaders in northwest Arkansas recounted some of their concerns and potential opportunities for helpful legislation as state lawmakers gathered in Little Rock for the start of the regular legislative session.

Anyone who pays attention to what happens under the state Capitol's dome knows there are good ideas raised anytime the legislature is in session. They also know there are some incredibly stupid ones, including bills that serve no other purpose than to create political volleys that will prove valuable in the next election.

The story last Sunday covered a lot of territory (thank you, news side), but what caught our attention from a "You've gotta be kidding" perspective was a point raised by Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse and Rogers Mayor Greg Hines. They both spoke of an expected proposal in the Legislature to convert municipal elections into partisan contests. In other words, your local city council member would run as a Republican or Democrat. Perhaps there might occasionally be a Libertarian or independent, but the more likely association would be with the two major political parties.

Sometimes, we pointy-headed editorialists don't have to work excessively hard to make a point because someone else made it so well before us.

"From the county to the federal level, partisanship hasn't helped get things done, and almost all of what cities do is nonpartisan anyway," Sprouse told a Democrat-Gazette reporter.

Hines raised the issue in a separate interview.

"Partisan elections were pushed hard last session, and we expect it to be pushed hard again," he said.

"It's just upside-down to me that my party, the party of local control, is the one pushing this," Hines said of the state Republican Party. "We beat it before, and I think we'll beat it again, but cities are having to use a lot of their capital against this."

Whether the city rebuilds one of its sewage treatment plant clarifiers or paves a street isn't a partisan issue. Indeed, the vast majority of issues that come before city councils isn't Republican or Democrat, so why suggest some kind of division based on party membership?

Undoubtedly, issues occasionally arise in city councils that lend themselves to conservative or liberal perspectives (although most of them are avoidable and ought to be ... that is, avoided). City residents interested in municipal matters can usually figure out who takes a more conservative or liberal approach. The city council meetings are perhaps the most accessible form of government to local residents and, often, the level that can most directly impact their day-to-day experiences. But it's such a local form of government that it remains easy govern first and foremost as neighbors.

Partisan municipal elections serve the interests of the political parties, not the voters. The parties benefit from filing fees and a stronger influence in picking the candidates from which voters will be allowed to select their local city representative. The proposal will demolish what is now a fairly level playing field for municipal candidates.

Political parties might view local government like a minor league farm team, where they can create a formal structure to groom the next round of candidates for higher office. Strategically, that might make a lot of sense for them. Nothing is stopping them from keeping an eye out for local talent, so to speak. But forcing local residents who want to serve in their city government into partisan politics is not in the best interests of local governance.

Perhaps more so than any other level of government, voters can easily get to know the people who want to represent them in municipal office. There's no need for party labels.

Let's hope the municipal leaders and local voters across the state show strong resistance to any legislative plan to introduce partisan elections at the city level. Local decision-making is hard enough without injecting Republican or Democratic divisions into debates.

The "R" and "D" at the local level should just stand for "research" and "discussion."

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