December 13, 2017

Listening to the People

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Grudges and grievances can last a long time.  Just two weeks ago someone decided to rehash the 2014 city council election with me.  He told me I was arrogant, dishonest, and deserving of defeat because I had voted for the abominable, detestable, sky-high one cent property tax increase rather than listen to the people, who obviously wanted no tax increase.  Well, I lost a friend, but at least I got a topic to write about.

Listening to the people.  Actually, everyone holding, or wanting to hold, elective office should listen to the people.  But there are two obstacles to listening to the people:  First, one must determine what people to listen to, and second, one must determine what they are saying. 

So what people should one listen to?  My ex-friend said I should have listened to the people coming before the city council and demanding no tax increase.  I didn’t listen to them and so I lost my re-election bid.  Had it coming.

What I tried to explain to him is that an examination of city council minutes, wherein were recorded the names and addresses of citizens who came before the council, revealed that only about six citizens were coming forward each week, and it was the same six every week.  Of course, common sense and common courtesy required us to listen to them and take seriously everything they said.  But did they represent the people as a whole?  Impossible to say.  As I tried to tell my ex-friend, for every demand that there be no tax increase, I was receiving an email that said we needed a tax increase to cope with our planned spending increases.  Of course, I actually didn’t get too many emails on the subject either.  My point, however, was that 12 people sounding off on a matter did not necessarily show what 18000 citizens of Stephenville actually thought.  True, a majority of the voters proved to be against the tax increase, but one could not have inferred that from the small number who bothered to contact city council members before the election.

So who should we listen to?  The public as a whole?  Well, in any given election only about 5% to 15% of the voters actually go to the polls to vote.  The other 85% to 95% of the voters don’t.  How can you listen to those who have nothing to say? (By the way, the fact that someone doesn’t vote doesn’t mean he’s either a bad person or a bad citizen who’s given up his right to complain down the line; the First Amendment keeps his rights intact, and as a citizen he never gives up his right to the best quality of services that the city council can provide, no matter how silent he may be on the matter).

So maybe we should just listen to the voters themselves, and do what the election returns tell us to do.  But that, too, can be harder than one thinks.

For example, where to get our water, and specifically whether we should use water from Lake Proctor, has always been a contentious issue.  Running for office in 2000, I said that given the demographic and engineering data then available, I supported the building of the Proctor Pipeline.  In May 2000 I was elected with 55% of the vote over someone who had taken no stand on the matter.  But two months later 87% of the voting public rejected the city council’s request for permission to sell bonds to finance the pipeline.  So the public had elected me after I announced support for the pipeline, and then rejected the pipeline itself.  What did it all mean?

I didn’t know then, and I still don’t.  However, I think that if the public clearly and definitively rejects a particular public policy via a referendum election, city council members should not try to implement it unless or until the public changes its mind.  Therefore, I voted against the Proctor Pipeline when the city council decided to resurrect it in 2004.  I still thought it was a good idea, but it was a better idea to respect the voters’ expressed will on the matter.

And that’s why, were I on the city council today, and had the opportunity to vote the Stephenville Economic Development Authority out of existence, I wouldn’t do so.  Don’t get me wrong:  I think its creation was, and remains, a terrible idea.  And if I could do so, I’d vote to limit its membership to people who actually live in Stephenville, to abolish its authority to spend money on its own, and to abolish the practice of using taxpayers’ money to aid particular businesses, whether through tax breaks, façade improvement grants, equipment purchase financing, whatever.  But the voters wanted SEDA, and until the voters say otherwise, SEDA should remain.

But the meaning of many elections—especially elections for candidates rather than elections on particular issues—can be more ambiguous.  For example, in the most recent election, 3 of the 4 candidates on the “Conservative” ticket won re-election, but another candidate, not on the slate and apparently targeted by the “Conservatives,” also won.  I’ve already mentioned the ambiguities surrounding my first election.  And voters continue to support most of the council members who were on record as opposing the 2013 tax increase yet who, having the power to roll back taxes to pre-tax hike levels, nonetheless refuse to do so.  In fact, the 2014 election, in which voters rejected the tax increase and those who supported it, was followed by the 2015 election, in which the voters expressed support for more spending on economic development.  No new taxes, but new spending?  How do our elected officials sort that out?

There is no easy way.  Given the ambiguities of elections and their meaning, the best an elected official can do is to try to honor the voters’ will, if he can determine it.  And of course, he can’t always do so unless there’s an intervening election that actually tells him what the voters think, meaning that sometimes he has to use his own judgement in the absence of reliable public opinion information.  And if that makes him seem arrogant, dishonest, and deserving of defeat, well the voters have every right to say so and act accordingly.  The consequences, whether good or bad, of public service, come with the territory, and nobody should try to enter public service unless he’s willing to risk the bad as well as the good.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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