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Getting smaller, Part II

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By Editorial Board

Last week, we used this space to question whether or not the size of Chester City Council was proving to be a stumbling block for the body's success. More people can mean more ideas, unique perspectives and more people to see and hear what's happening in the community. Unfortunately, it can also mean more personal agendas, more bickering and more people pulling on opposite ends of the rope. With eight council members, a mayor and a hired administrator participating in meetings (it is far larger that any other body in the county), the group as currently constituted frequently spins its wheels, struggles to get things accomplished (see the 21-month struggle to hire a finance director) and repeats many of the same topics and arguments without ever coming to a resolution. We suggested that perhaps going to one council member per ward instead of two, or one per ward with two at-large members would streamline things, making it easier to build consensus and get things accomplished. Since that time, we've considered another advantage a smaller council could provide.

There have only been a rare handful of instances in the past 14 years that sitting members of Chester City Council have lost their seats. Increasingly, incumbents have been winning by default with few challengers ever stepping forward. In one case a few years ago, there wasn't actually an election since only incumbents filed. Part of that is obviously voter apathy, but we also wonder if voters (and thus potential candidates) suffer from a little bit of burnout. With so many council members, elections are stacked every two years. Four seats and the mayor's office will be up for grabs in 2019 and the other four council seats come up in 2021. We think that if there were fewer seats, it would eliminate the need to have elections every two years. That would accomplish two goals...first, it would save the city some money, but it would also eliminate the overkill factor and make elections something more people look forward. That would give the council as a whole time to develop chemistry and work together. The council as a whole could then be evaluated at the ballot box every four years.

We also tend to think that having fewer of something tends to make it seem more valuable. Maybe having fewer council members would make each seat a bit more prestigious in the eyes of the public. We do know that a smaller council would mean that the pay for each seat could go up. Currently, council members only get a few hundred dollars a month. If that total was closer to $1,000 a month, we feel certain that more members of the public would seek office. People should run because they want to serve and be an asset to their community, not to make money, of course, but there is no doubt that higher pay would equal higher interest. We think that would also increase the level of accountability. With more money comes higher expectations for members of council to work toward making the city a better place at all times, not just during meetings. It also brings more scrutiny and the greater possibility that if you make missteps, you will have at least one challenger for your seat and maybe more than that.

Again, we can't wave a magic wand and make this change take place and neither can Chester City Council itself. The citizens have to decide for themselves how they wish to be governed. We think they should perhaps look at the size of the council that represents them and runs their city. If they do, we suspect they might determine that more isn't always better.