Un­manned gov­er­nance

State laws switch from ‘al­der­man’ to ‘coun­cil mem­bers’

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

Be­cause of changes ap­proved in the last ses­sion of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, Arkansans who run for a seat on their lo­cal City Coun­cil won’t have to use a term that doesn’t match the gen­der listed on their birth cer­tifi­cates.

OK, we might be get­ting our state news sto­ries mixed up a lit­tle. But not too much, as state leg­is­la­tors have of­fi­cially buried the use of the ti­tle “al­der­man” to de­scribe the elected mem­bers of the or­di­nance- and bud­get-mak­ing pan­els that over­see about 400 mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments in Arkansas. Good­bye, al­der­man.

Hello, coun­cil mem­ber.

The term al­der­man has been around for eons, con­jured up so far back it’s likely no­body gave a sec­ond thought to the no­tion that a woman — a woman! — might one day hold that elec­tive of­fice. Oh, how times have changed. All four of the big­ger cities in Northwest Arkansas have at least one woman serv­ing on the City Coun­cil. Rogers has two and Fayet­teville has three.

As of Aug. 1, Arkansas law will re­fer to them with the gen­der­less “coun­cil mem­ber.”

State laws were also changed to get rid of the “al­der­manic” form of city gov­ern­ment, call­ing it in­stead the mayor-coun­cil form.

In the area’s smaller towns, women are an even more siz­able force on City Coun­cils. Four of West Fork’s eight alder … uh … coun­cil mem­bers are women. Three of Gravette’s five coun­cil mem­bers are women. Three are among the lead­ers in Cen­ter­ton. The list could go on and on. There was a time in our na­tion when women didn’t even have the vote. To­day, and for years now, com­mu­ni­ties have been made bet­ter by their lead­er­ship.

Some­times, as they say, a woman is the best man for the job. But why in the world would they want to be called an “alder-MAN.” And once we start throw­ing around “alder­woman” to bal­ance the books, the word salad starts get­ting jum­bled.

The pub­lic, sim­ply, elects mem­bers of the City Coun­cil. No rea­son to dis­sect the mem­ber­ship into the two sexes. The re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of each elec­tive po­si­tion are the same re­gard­less.

It was in the small town of Paris, in Lo­gan County, that this idea arose. Jewell White was the city’s fi­nance di­rec­tor (not fi­nance­man) for 24 years. Af­ter re­tir­ing, she ran for a seat on the City Coun­cil and served one term. The ter­mi­nol­ogy seemed ar­chaic, she said.

“I just kind of ob­served that, through the years, more and more women were be­com­ing in­volved,” White re­cently told a re­porter. “I thought we needed to up­grade the ter­mi­nol­ogy as a ben­e­fit to the ladies who were serv­ing.”

She took it up with the Paris City Coun­cil, which agreed to spon­sor White’s res­o­lu­tion for change be­fore the Arkansas Mu­nic­i­pal League, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that lob­bies state law­mak­ers for changes de­signed to ben­e­fit Arkansas cities. Lonoke’s state Rep. Roger Lynch spon­sored bills to make the changes and both cham­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly pro­vided their con­sent.

White said she didn’t see the change as a “big thing for any­one.” And it’s cer­tainly not go­ing to mag­i­cally re­solve the chal­lenges that face city gov­ern­ments or ex­pand the tax base or pave more streets.

But why have a term for elected po­si­tions that re­ally doesn’t fit it any­more? Why un­nec­es­sar­ily fo­cus at­ten­tion on gen­der when we’ve come such a long way, baby? It’s not about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, as some per­haps be­lieve. It’s about re­spect­ing the in­di­vid­ual and rec­og­niz­ing the com­mit­ment to their com­mu­ni­ties comes from a heart for pub­lic ser­vice that beats in most ev­ery­one who runs for of­fice, re­gard­less of gen­der.

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