The recent discussion related to whether or not to expand the number of wards that comprise the make-up of Lebanon boils down to a simple question.
What is best for the city?
The rationale behind Mayor Phillip Craighead’s desire to increase to eight wards from six makes sense.
The populations of each ward are mismatched. Based on 2010 populations, each Lebanon City Councilor represents anywhere from 3,492 (Ward 3) citizens to 4,887 (Ward 4) citizens.
One plan, which calls for remaining at 6 wards, but realigning them, would create a range of 4,259 citizens in Ward 4 to 4,515 citizens in Ward 2.
The second plan, which is to create eight wards, would establish a situation where each councilor represents fewer people at an average of 3,274 per ward.
There are financial challenges to adding wards. Councilors aren’t paid much - $600 per month. However, they do receive health insurance benefits while they serve. And if they serve two terms they are entitled to health insurance benefits after the age of 62.
This can add up. Currently, according to City Attorney Andy Wright, two former councilors, Carl Wood and William Farmer, are collecting benefits. Neither Wright, nor Commissioner of Finance Russell Lee could verify how much benefits to these two cost. Additional wards make it more likely that this expense increases, and in an age of cash-strapped governments, ever penny counts.
However, dollars and cents should not be the only criteria.
The ultimate question is what gives citizens the most efficient representation in Lebanon’s City Government.
This is where the question is raised, given the current “job description” of Lebanon’s City Council, just what is the number of citizens one councilor can effective represent?
In Nashville, the 35 council members represent an average of 47,000 constituents each. The five at-large members represent 1.6 million constituents.
Of course, Nashville’s metro government may not be a fair comparison.
Hendersonville has a population of 51,372. With six aldermen, each ward contains an average of 8,562 people. Smyrna has a population of 39,974. The town council has six members, each representing 6,662 people on average.
What is different about our council that we need to add two wards so they represent half the number a town councilman in Smyrna represents?
What is missing is exactly how the citizens are better served by a realignment of the six Wards, or an addition of two Wards.
The Lebanon Democrat acknowledges that the wards currently are unbalanced in terms of citizens per ward. However, we feel the current council must, whether considering realigning the current six or adding two more, keep service to, and representation of, the citizens at top of mind.
An additional factor is the long-range growth trends for the city? Will we take this action and merely have to do so again in couple of years? Will realignment become a routine task?
And of course there is the age-old question of cost. Will the added expense (at $18,000 to $30,000 per year, including benefits, per ward) be worth the hoped-for increase in citizen representation? Or to view this question from the perspective of most business people: Is this something that is needed or is it something that is wanted? Will it lead to long-term savings through increased efficiencies? How does this help the city government?
The Lebanon Democrat does not oppose realignment, nor do we expressly oppose the addition of two wards.
Rather, The Lebanon Democrat challenges the city to do due diligence and prove their case that the citizens will benefit from realignment or that the expense of adding two wards, including possible legacy costs, is a worthwhile one.
To that end, The Lebanon Democrat is encouraged the councilors deferred voting on this manner and they are challenged to truly explore if and how realignment or addition will serve the citizens of Lebanon.