It’s only corruption if you don’t like it…

I want either less corruption, or more chance to participate in it.

Ashleigh Brilliant

I live in a small Appalachian town in north-central West Virginia called, Clarksburg. Once known as one of West Virginia’s top industrial cities, it is now a diminished version of the old city that was called, “The Jewel of the Hills.”

In many ways, Clarksburg’s story is very much like that of other American industrial cities. As the downtown stores migrated to shopping malls, factories closed, and population shrank, many industrial cities fell to the savages of blight and poverty. The downtown, which was once a bustling center of activity, became a vestige of the past with its amazing historic character eroding further each season as empty buildings bowed under the weight of neglect.

Clarksburg is where my wife Kim grew up. She had experienced it while it was still a vibrant thriving city. I, on the other hand, was only introduced to it decades after the decline had begun. Having spent the majority of my life growing up and living in the suburbs of large cities (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix & Nashville), Clarksburg charmed my with its old buildings and neighborhoods filled with century-old homes. Other places I had lived had town down the majority of their historical structures and the remaining historic buildings and homes eventually became prized high-value assets, but the awesomeness seemed to be lost on the population who lived there.

I was introduced to Clarksburg at a time in my life when I was really interested in social dynamics, community-building, and political structure. I became fascinated with trying to understand a form of government that was like nothing I had known before and seemed inherently structured to preserve and concentrate political power.

I was introduced to a council/manager form of government where the legislative branch is elected and the executive branch is hired. The city had a “mayor,” but that position held no power and was only responsible for the representing the city as a ceremonial head, presiding as the chair of the City Council and representing the decisions of that council as signatory. I had only known what I learned is called a “strong mayor” which is an elected position with executive powers and responsibilities.

By Clarksburg’s city charter, a city manager is hired for an indefinite amount of time and can either leave at their own discretion or be removed by formal act of council. There is no way for the citizens to remove a city manager if the council chooses to keep them and at the time that I was getting familiarized with Clarksburg, there was a growing disapproval with the way the city was being managed.

In the political forms of government that I was familiar with, all people with political power answered to the voters. If people didn’t like them, they voted them out. Because a city manager was not elected the only way the voters could compel change was to put political pressure on their city council members–but here is where things get convoluted.

Everyplace that I have ever lived had local representation who were elected to district seats, with usually one or two at-large council representatives added that don’t represent any single district. Clarksburg didn’t work that way. All of Clarksburg’s council seats were at-large and so there was no specific part of the population that voted for any one council representative. Even more confusingly, council members are voted for in blocks. There is one block of council members voted for four-at-a-time and another block that are voted for three-at-a-time. What this means is that it is impossible to “remove” an at-large council member without ensuring that everyone in the “block” has more votes than the member you would like to remove.

Add to that, the complete apathy of the populace to participate in elections meant that it was easy to hold on to power. It was not unusual that a large number of council members lived in the same neighborhood.