Happy Election Day, everyone. 

As people across the country head to the polls, we know what will be on their minds: proposed revisions to municipal charters.  Will Baltimore create a Department of General Services?  Will the Commissioners of Miami-Dade County get an $85,000 raise?  Will Philadelphia combine its Parks and Recreation departments into one?  Esoteric though the questions may be, their answers will have a substantial impact on the how these local governments function for years to come. 

In Philly, the separation between the Fairmount Park Commission and the Department of Recreation has long been a source of frustration and inefficiency.  A 2004 strategic plan tried to redefine their roles, but in 2008 the lines of authority remained blurred.  Today, it’s up to the citizens of Philadelphia to fix the problem — because their elected representatives don’t have the power to do so.

In the midst of New York City’s term limit saga, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about municipal power.  Though the Mayor and Council of New York City can give each other another crack at their offices (over the repeatedly expressed will of the voters, no less) the same actors in Philadelphia can’t even merge two related agencies.  They can only put the question on the ballot.  I suspect that the average Philadelphian would be as surprised to learn what his government couldn’t do as New Yorkers were taken aback to learn what their government could.  And there are many more cities in Philadelphia’s position than there are in New York’s.

Direct democracy may once have looked like a bulwark against urban political machines, but today it’s a curiosity and a hindrance more often than not.  When voters are not invested in the ballot questions before them, their votes are necessarily arbitrary.  And they can produce some strange results.

Just ask California.

— JB

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