How to Split a Cookie Fairly

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When we were very young many of us learned that the fairest way to share a cookie between two people was to let one person split the cookie in two and to let the other person have first choice of the resulting pieces. The cookie breaker had the motivation to be as fair as possible when splitting the cookie because the breaker would not get first choice of cookie pieces.

Recently, two local issues that could have long-term impact on the character of the community and our quality of life, design of a community survey and drafting an ordinance regarding short term lodging, have been relegated to two councilperson subcommittees.

While presumably not illegal, the process is at least questionable and potentially less than fully democratic.

How the process works:  Two councilmembers are selected to work on an issue and to come back with a recommendation.  By definition, they will come up with something on which they will agree.  When they come back, they will look pretty silly if they then don’t vote for their own recommendation. So, the council deliberation starts with two votes already determined.

All they need is one more vote. Since the council had agreed to trust the two with the authority to recommend an action, it would be awkward for the remaining councilmembers to not abide by the recommendation. So, the process has a built in bias and the deck is stacked by the very process itself.

There are ways to address this problem.

We could simply eliminate the practice of assigning projects to two councilperson subcommittees.

We could increase the council to seven or nine so that more than one councilmember will need to be persuaded.

Or, and this may be the fairest and most practical, like the cookie breaker, perhaps the process is changed so that two councilmembers on the subcommittee come up with their best recommendation but are not allowed to vote on the issue.  After the subcommittee does its work and makes its recommendation, like any other issue where there is a conflict of interest, the subcommittee members leave the room and the remaining three councilmembers deliberate and vote. Like the people sharing cookies, one side is motivated to come up with the fairest proposal possible, knowing the other side gets to pick.


John Thomas, Laguna Beach

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