Who Knows Best — The Elected Official or the People?

As news of who's running for president starts to roll in, voters start to watch for the candidate who not only aligns with them but will pay attention to them and their concerns as well. The common idea of a politician is as an elected representative, someone who represents what their constituents want. Michael Nutter, the former two-time mayor of the sixth largest city in the United States, Philadelphia, disagrees.

Michael Nutter visited BU on April 16 as a guest lecturer for a BU Political Science class. It was an open discussion where students were encouraged to ask him any question. The professor, Professor Piston, opened the floor asking whether officials should be delegates, an official who represents and does what the public wants, or trustees, an official who represents their best interest and makes their own decisions, for their constituents.

"The public sometimes is just not right," said Nutter. "This is not the Roman colosseum."

Photo Credit: Alex Wong / Getty

Nutter was first elected mayor in 2007, starting his term in 2008 around the same time as the recession started. However, before he, and the rest of the world, became aware of the recession he started his term and started to invest in changes for the city, as he promised his constituents. Then the recession hit and they were left with little options.

"But [we've] already invested, then had to announce tax hikes and service cuts. Not exactly a winning strategy for a first-time mayor" said Nutter. "People were pissed, they didn’t understand it was a worldwide phenomenon, people were losing everything and he had to deliver tough hard messages."

With the recession especially they were forced to make decisions the people didn’t want because they didn’t fully understand the extent of the problem yet. This doesn't mean every decision Nutter made was right and the people were always wrong.

"You won't get every decision right, eight out of ten things work, one is a complete failure," said Nutter. "You made that decision you own it."

He said his goal during this time was to be as transparent with the public as possible about the actions they were taking, no matter the response.

"It takes a lot of effort to piss everybody off," said Nutter. "But apparently we did it."

However, his only other option was massive layoffs of civil employees. Nutter said he couldn’t fathom the idea of laying off thousands of public employees at that time. In a city with a high poverty rate, he didn’t want to send that many people into financial chaos.

"It was a shared sacrifice, everyone was upset, but everybody had some skin in the game," said Nutter.

Even if it wasn't what the public wanted or would have chosen, or what even Nutter wanted to do, in the end, it was the best option to save the city.

"You don’t always get to do what you want to do, you do what you have to do," said Nutter. "It's about saving the city, you literally cannot run out of money."

One of the reasons Nutter believes officials should be trustees and not delegates is because he believes the public is not informed enough, or just doesn't care enough, to make the right decisions.

"We have more access to more information than at any time in the history of the universe yet we seem to know less about the things that we care about," said Nutter.

Photo Credit: Dave Granlund/Cagle Cartoons

He claims that people don’t prioritize politics enough in their lives, despite how much it affects them. He said nothing will change if people don't participate.

"You're not born until some elected or appointed official signs your birth certificate and you're not officially dead until someone signs it," said Nutter. "In between those two points, your whole life has someone making decisions who has been elected. Why don’t you want a voice in who makes those decisions?" asked Nutter.

Just because Nutter said that the public isn't as informed as it should be and that officials should act as trustees, he doesn’t mean one should ignore the public's opinion entirely.

While Nutter doesn't use polls often he would do a poll every few years to have data about what was going on in the public's mind. He noted however that in an expressive city like Philadelphia you don’t need to do a lot of polling to know what the public wants and that polling isn't always the best representation of what they want anyway.

"You can't govern by polling, polls are a snapshot in time, where people are in that moment," said Nutter. "Your better polling is spending time in the streets and not in city hall.  [You] hear more walking down the street or riding on the subway [and] it’s a pretty good indication of where you are."

Whether officials should act as delegates or trustees has been a long debated question in political science, but in the end, it depends on how much the public cares, not only about holding their representative accountable, but about politics themselves.


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