Last week one of the topics I mentioned was the set of issues surrounding the proposed Multipurpose Center—where it was to be located, what functions it was to serve, how much it would cost, and how would the city pay for it. Statements by a council member in The Flash Today and the local “newspaper” reported a possible cost of $26 million, and a possible scheme to have it built by private developers and then lease it for about $770,000 per year. I suggested that the city council put the entire matter to the citizens for a vote through a bond election, wherein the people would decide if they wanted this project in the first place.
Whether the city council decides how much and how to pay for a multipurpose center, or allows the people to vote on these matters directly, depends on whether the council prefers representative democracy or direct democracy. In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to decided public policy issues. When practicing direct democracy, the people decide those issues directly themselves.
Most politicians and political scientists like representative democracy over direct democracy. They say that elected representatives can study issues more thoroughly and make better decisions for the people than the people can make for themselves.
But sometimes issues beyond who should serve in government are so important that it is believed that the people should be allowed to vote on them directly. A case in point was whether the city council should be allowed to borrow $15 million to finance the construction of the Proctor Pipeline and other water-related projects in 2000. The people voted overwhelmingly to reject the idea.
Given its enormous costs and its permanence if built, the proposed Multipurpose Center is another such issue. However it’s paid for, and whatever the final costs of the building and land, paying for it will have a profound impact on the city’s finances for years, if not decades. To pay for it with a lease agreement will put a greater strain on the city’s finances and may require more severe cuts in other services or a higher tax rate. Borrowing the money will also require the diversion of taxes to pay both principle and interest, likewise raising the possibility of service cuts, tax increases, or some combination thereof.
The most democratic way to handle this matter is to figure out what the people want, and act accordingly. This can best be done by agreeing to finance the Multipurpose Center with general obligation bonds, to be approved by the voters in a bond election, and to be financed from our tax revenue. The city council, in other words, should put before the voters a comprehensive plan detailing the location, functions, and cost of the Center, and give the people the final say. If the people vote yes, then the city council can proceed with the Multipurpose Center with the full knowledge that they are implementing the will of the people.
But if the people vote no—then what?
You’ll recall that the Proctor Pipeline proposal earned the approval of only 13% of the voters. Although I was in that tiny minority who initially supported it, I told the city council at the first meeting after the election that I could no longer support the Proctor Pipeline since the people had rejected it, and the council should not push it until the people changed their minds.
The city council was under no obligation to take my advice, and in fact rejected it in 2004, when it voted 6-3 to finance by means not requiring a popular vote for approval a scaled down seven million dollar project. I was in the minority, arguing, to no effect, that however beneficial the addition of Lake Proctor water to our system might be, it was not worth going against the expressed will of the people. Several former council members who had voted for the 2004 Proctor Pipeline subsequently lost their election comeback bids in 2014.
There are other means of financing the Multipurpose Center which don’t require approval through a vote of the people, and it would be perfectly legal for the city council to therefore pursue these financing means and thereby build the Center without popular approval, even if the people initially rejected it in a bond election. But the wiser course of action, should the people reject the Center in a direct democracy vote, would be to work to change the people’s minds and win their approval in another election before proceeding with the project. Since the people will ultimately have to pay for the Center by some means if it’s built, they should have the ultimate say in deciding whether to vote for it in the first place. However, beneficial a Multipurpose Center might be, one must wonder whether its benefits, when built, would be enough to counterbalance the problems arising from the people’s sense of betrayal should the people vote to reject it and the council ignores their will. The wiser course of action would be for the council to listen to the people, and act accordingly.