Editorial: Chimes of liberty ring out for two-year terms in Port Jeff
Frequent elections are a common feature of healthy, vibrant democracies. Here in the Village of Port Jefferson, the community should recognize the value elections bring.
Biennial elections, or those held every two years, have been in place since the village’s incorporation. However, during a business meeting held Monday, March 20, the Port Jeff Board of Trustees voted unanimously to alter the length of terms for village mayor, trustees and judges from two to four years.
At TBR News Media, we view one of our roles as watchdog of local government for the people. The free press must shine light upon power, especially power wielded hastily and imprudently. We, therefore, regard Monday’s decision as irresponsible and advise the voting public to reverse course.
Biennial elections strengthen the ties between elected officials and their constituents. Up for election every two years, the representative continuously returns to the people, selling his or her vision to the public, receiving ideas in exchange. This symbiotic process keeps governmental decisions reflective of the public will.
During debates over ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Americans argued most vehemently over the structure of Congress. At the height of those debates, James Madison, in Federalist No. 52, advanced the most coherent and convincing rationale for maintaining two-year terms in the House of Representatives.
“As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people,” Madison wrote, “so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”
The “intimate sympathy” between congressmen and their districts — kindled through biennial elections — distinguishes the lower chamber as the “People’s House.” Over more than two centuries after ratification, we still elect congressional representatives every two years.
But an even greater incentive remains for preserving the current system in Port Jeff. This year’s election season is already underway, with three of the five members of the current board seeking election in less than 90 days.
Whether or not the board appreciates this fact, Monday’s vote comes at a delicate historical moment. Within the broader national context, many are losing faith in American democracy, as both major political parties and an often-unrestrained national press and social media work in tandem to erode public trust in our democratic norms.
Election denial is becoming a mainstay of our national political discourse. Allegations of voter fraud, voter suppression and election interference are commonplace today. Monday’s vote signals a lack of awareness of these broader currents, setting a dangerous precedent by localizing our national democratic defects.
Finally, the term extensions flatly disregard ongoing concerns among some villagers who fear the decisions made by this board might be made in an untransparent and undemocratic manner. By extending their terms and expanding the scope of their powers, board members risk further alienating residents from the decision-making process.
The village government has some serious work ahead. Between declining public revenue, a rising budget and a sometimes disillusioned electorate, policymaking now more than ever requires close coordination between village officials and their community. Monday’s outcome does the opposite, creating more distance and potentially shielding representatives from public scrutiny.
Citizens have recourse. Under the New York Village Law, the voters can overturn this resolution through a permissive referendum. We encourage residents to do their part to help collect the necessary signatures, then to defeat this ill-conceived measure at the ballot box in June.
But more must be done to reinvigorate democracy in Port Jeff. Too few attend village board meetings or write us letters detailing their local concerns. A lack of public participation communicates a lack of interest to the board. Citizens must actively engage and work with their local government.
May this board and electorate rediscover the power of intimate sympathy. May shared love of democracy bind citizens to their local representatives once again. As June nears, let the chimes of liberty ring out loudly in Port Jefferson village.