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Column: When To Be Representative or Trustee?

Lessons #3 for serving and governing.

This is the fourth in a series of columns, coordinated by former council member Lonnie Rich, that includes other past city leaders writing on governance and politics.

City Council members: What are you, representatives of the people or trustees for the people?

Answer: You are both, but not at the same time; and only you can figure out the time to be one or the other.

As a representative, your duty is to be responsive to what the majority would like for you to do. This is what an election more or less does is to choose on the basis of the most votes. What the people who voted for you want you to do is extremely important. What the majority thinks is always important, and most of the time your discernment of the majority view will be determinative for you.

But what about those times when the majority view is questionable, like when passions are inflamed or views are short-sighted or uninformed, or when they are just plain morally wrong. There are lots of examples of this — integration, busing, Vietnam war, gay rights, flag burning.

As a trustee, your duty is to do what is right in the highest moral and legal sense, regardless of what the majority believes in the moment. You are expected to say no to the majority and yes to the minority.

You will have the choice to be a representative or a trustee in almost every vote. You have to figure out the balance. I suggest that most of the time you will need to discern the majority view and go with it. You will be acting as a representative of the people. However, sometimes, you will need to act for the people as their trustee.

And who are the majority and minority? It can be sliced and diced in many ways. It may be based on party, race, sex, neighborhood, business/residential, some particular issue or some other factor. In any given case, it may be hard to decide who is the majority and who is the minority. Once you have that figured out, you will still be left with question of representative or trustee.

Don’t be tempted to be a representative all the time in an effort to ensure your re-election. It will only make you look like a weather vane, and a small one at that. On the other hand, do not be a trustee too often, because you will look like an arrogant autocrat; and you can’t be right all the time; and the majority cannot be wrong all the time. As with most things, the answers lie in the balance. We elected you to figure this out.

Lonnie Rich served on the Alexandria City Council from 1991 to 2000. He is a law partner in Rich Rosenthal Brincefield Manitta Dzubin & Kroeger, LLP.