Members of the Corvallis City Council are still engaged in the process of setting their priorities for their two-year term and have scheduled a third meeting on the topic for next week.
The council has struggled to whittle down a lengthy list of possible priorities, which is perhaps an indication of how difficult and important the work is. It required intervention by City Manager Mark Shepard to pare the list to five general themes, with a variety of objectives and actions stemming from the five. At its Sept. 21 work session, the council is scheduled to conclude the process by agreeing to a final list of priorities.
The work is important because having a limited list of key priorities helps the council focus its limited time and bandwidth. It's too easy to get distracted, and being able to refer to a short list of items that councilors have agreed to is an essential tool to help maintain focus during a two-year term. A council that's spread too thin is an ineffective council.
We'll see what the final list looks like in a week or so, assuming that councilors do their assigned homework before next week's meeting. But perhaps it has not escaped your notice that when the list gets finalized, more than a third of the council's two-year term will be over.
Which is part of the reason why we were surprised that councilors at a meeting last week did not express more enthusiasm for the idea of taking a careful look at the city charter. In particular, two items included in the charter seem to us to be worthy of additional examination: the number of councilors and the length of their terms.
At present, the City Council has nine councilors, and they serve two-year terms. It always hasn't been that way: In the not-too-long-ago past, the council had fewer councilors, and they served six-year terms.
That gave councilors the luxury of a longer learning curve: Frankly, two years is not long enough to learn the details of what is, for all intents and purposes, a very demanding part-time volunteer job. But those six-year terms also contributed to a sense held by many voters that the council had become an exclusive club, and in a 1971 election, voters opted for the two-year term, which does have the benefit of allowing voters to toss all the rascals out regularly.
As a practical matter, many councilors choose to run for re-election, but the possibility remains under this system that we could elect a completely new council every two years, with the resulting loss of institutional memory. To some extent, we want the council to serve as a check on the city staff — but it’s hard to pick up the necessary knowledge to be effective in that role in just two years of part-time work.
So why not consider a system is which we have a fewer number of councilors (either eight or six), serving staggered four-year terms? That way, we'd elect half of the council every two years. That would help ensure a carryover of institutional memory and could lend some continuity to the council's goal-setting process; we wouldn't necessarily have to start every two years with a fresh pad of easel paper and a new supply of those sticky dots used in the dreaded "multivote" exercise.
Voters would need to approve the change; any alteration in the city charter must go before the electorate. But we believe voters understand that the work councilors do today is more complex and difficult than it was nearly 50 years ago. Corvallis residents ask a lot of their councilors; for many residents, their councilor is their entry point into city government. In return, we could make it easier for them to gain the experience that helps to make them effective. (mm)