The goal is balanced, accessible representation for the residents of Northfield. Dividing the city into geographic wards is one way to try to meet that goal, but not the only way.
The big advantage of the ward system is giving designated representation to each quadrant of the city by a resident of that ward. Ward residents know who to call if they have a problem. 2nd Ward residents have needed help with or had questions about street lights, snow-plowing (not this year, obviously), beavers, parks, mowing (or rather non-mowing of vacant lots), trees, city maintenance, and traffic near the soccer fields at Spring Creek Park. In turn, I keep closer track of what happens in the 2nd Ward and if ward-specific issues show up on the agenda – street projects are the most obvious – I have a special interest in making the best choice for the ward as well as knowing more about my home territory. Erica Zweifel has consistently advocated for her 3rd Ward constituents in the siting of the Safety Center, improving pedestrian and bicycle connectivity across Highway 3, and working with St. Olaf College.
But, consider some other factors:
Geography is often not relevant: most issues are not specific to one ward and it is difficult to identify a ward-specific perspective. This was one of 4th Ward Councilor Patrick Ganey’s reasons for raising the question.
No geographic division will cut cleanly: Neighborhoods cut across ward boundaries and there are multiple neighborhoods within each ward. As well, some constituencies are better defined than others. Would it make more sense to assign Council members to represent the colleges, retirement communities, non-English speaking residents, or any other identifiable group?
Some Council members are more responsive than others; wards with conscientious representatives get much better representation and conscientious reps get more work. Prior to the last election, I got a significant number of calls from two other wards because their own ward representative could not be reached.
Council members tend to have particular issues they care about, know about, and work to advance; we could each represent areas of government rather than areas of town. Have a land use problem? Call me.
The school board elects at-large representatives with the top vote-getters from the pool being elected (4 seats open, for example, then the top 4 win). If the Council adopted this system, we might imagine it could broaden the candidate pool – if there are openings on the Council, a candidate would not have to wait for the right ward opening, two strong candidates who live in the same area might both be elected, candidates might find it less daunting to run as part of a group knowing they didn’t have to get the most votes. On the flip side, campaigning only in one ward might seem simpler than a city-wide effort.
In practice, some of my time goes to ward-related constituent service while more of it goes to general city business like tax levies, policy-making, etc. For the city business part, wards are less important. But, when calls to city hall can’t get streetlights fixed or residents have questions about city issues and services that’s when having ward representatives or some other easy way to know who to call is crucial. Wards, whatever their shortcomings, make it easy: if you know where you live, you can figure out your ward representative.
The decennial redistricting is at least an opportunity to ask if we can do a better job of representing Northfield residents than the current system and, if we think we’ve found a better system, then we need to ask voters if they agree. It’s a discussion, not a decision at this point.