Guest Opinions

Representative government: What is it and how should it work?

Kennewick City Hall
Kennewick City Hall Tri-City Herald

Every elected official makes decisions that affect the people they represent. Should he or she decide based on their own values, acquired wisdom and good judgment, or go against their judgment in order to appease a majority of the people who voted them into office?

It’s an important question, especially in today’s culture, where political correctness and divisiveness are apparent in the news and in national, regional and local government arenas. Politicians say they will serve the people by representing them, but what does that actually look like?

As a retired newspaper reporter who has served on the Kennewick City Council for the past five years, I believe the concept of representative government is poorly understood both by some elected officials and the public.

This can be seen in letters to the editor chastising politicians for going against what the writer says the public wants. Legalizing marijuana and restricting gun ownership are recent examples.

Perhaps the best example is when someone insists their individual or group identity is not adequately represented because their elected officials are not part of a particular demographic or special interest group.

As an example, a recent vacancy on the Kennewick City Council had a good mix of 29 applicants. A retired Hanford employee who is white and male and over the age of 50 was chosen. It didn’t take long for people on Facebook to start posting questions, “Why not a woman?” or “Why not someone younger?” The council was already all-male, and all but one is at or approaching senior citizen status. Good questions, but state and federal laws prohibit making selections based on age, gender, race, religion, marital status, etc.

Simply defined, representative government is when a person elected to public office is chosen from the population he or she will govern. The representative must represent everyone within the boundaries of the district or ward, including those who did not or could not vote. The chosen representative is not exclusively a representative only for those who voted him or her into office. The newly elected representative can’t be all things to all constituents. There are simply too many varied and opposing views. Representative government must be a balancing of competing interests, and the wisest decisions are not always dictated by majority rule.

Representative government requires choosing the best candidates, and that puts the onus on voters. In a sense, it is an act of faith. To complain after the election is evidence that voters didn’t get what they expected. Either the majority voters were misled or misinformed by the candidate, or they failed to do their homework before voting. Or, it may be evidence that the voters wrongly assumed they could control their representative through special interest pressure or financial influence.

Once elected, an official should be free to initiate creative solutions based on his or her education, experience, acquired wisdom and core values. Elected officials with the highest integrity are those who stand firm to their values and resist special interest pressure if it goes against their studied belief of what is best for the people they represent.

Two very important lessons are evident. The first is that it is the voters’ responsibility to know as much as they can about candidates before voting. If the wrong person is chosen, that is not the fault of the candidate. Second, candidates must be straightforward and honest to the public about who they are. A campaign should not be polluted with half-truths, impossible promises, and incomplete explanations. A candidate simply saying they will represent the people by trying to identify with certain interest groups is disingenuous, if not pandering. Anyone who wants to serve the public well as an elected official must win the confidence of voters not by cleverness and flattery, but by sharing openly their values and goals.

Integrity is the premier character trait of any elected official. Voters should seek representatives who are transparent and honest about how they will approach the job of decision-making for the best governing of their constituents. This is how representative government is supposed to work — of, for and by the people.

John Trumbo is a member of the Kennewick City Council and a former journalist. He spent several years as a reporter for the Tri-City Herald