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Friday, July 3, 2009

Government by referendum in Cincinnati

Is this the future of Cincinnati and the way we run our government here? It certainly seems that way after a string of items that have changed the City's Charter and began this form of governance. Those items include:

  • Photo-enforced red light cameras (Charter amendment)
  • 2007 Jail/Public Safety sales tax issue
  • Proportional representation election system
  • Passenger rail investment (November election, Charter amendment)
  • Sale of City's Water Works Department (November election)

I'm all for the democratic process, but the trend that is forming here is not that. The way our government is supposed to work is by electing individuals to represent us. Those elected officials then make the calls on these specific and important issues. If you like the way they handle those issues, you reelect them, if you don't, you elect someone else. This is the American way, this is democracy.

We have seen this "direct democracy" or "government by referendum" before in California and the results are in. What has happened is hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of issues are put on the ballot for the voters of California to decide. Often times these are items that trained policymakers should be examining, but are instead being politicized on the most minute level.

As Cincinnatians For Progress points out, this has resulted in a $27 billion budget gap, crumbling schools, the need for dramatic tax increases and the need for the state of California to start issuing I.O.U.'s because it can't pay its own bills.

And contrary to what you might originally think, this style of governance is not benefiting ordinary citizens and empowering grassroots movements. The Economist reports that:

"It is not ordinary citizens but rich tycoons from Hollywood or Silicon Valley, or special interests such as unions for prison guards, teachers or nurses, that bankroll most initiatives onto the ballots."

"Many others, however, now believe that California needs to start from scratch, with a fully-fledged constitutional convention. California’s current constitution rivals India’s and Alabama’s for being the longest and most convoluted in the world, and is several times longer than America’s. It has been amended or revised more than 500 times and now, with the cumulative dross of past voter initiatives incorporated, is a document that assures chaos."

Surely this is not the form of governance that we want in Cincinnati. It would seem to me that what we actually want is a government with elected officials that are held accountable for their actions. A government that works efficiently and is responsive to the interests of the community and constituents that empowers and employs them.

I for one know I do not want a City Charter that "assures chaos," or a local government that is constantly in gridlock unable to get anything done. If you feel the same way I would like to challenge you to take's what you can do:

  • Write to the Enquirer or Business Courier and share your thoughts.
  • Donate to Cincinnatians For Progress who are fighting this style of government in Cincinnati.
  • Tell your friends and family not to be fooled by the people at COAST and the WeDemandAVote campaign. Tell them that what these groups are doing is not simply trying to promote democracy, but rather, destroy it at its core level.
  • If you have a blog or participate in social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc then please share this link with them and encourage them to do the same.


Jason said...

Excellent post! I was in Northside this morning and was approached by one of these COAST petitioners. I quickly shot them down and proceeded to tell them that they were being deceptive and holding our city back. He basically just walked away from me before anyone else could here me speaking the truth about their petitions. I later watched them collecting signatures from others gathered around to watch the parade and here's how they approach people "Hello, I have a petition here to get the "trolley issue" on the ballot, would you like to sign it?"
Unfortunately many of the people they approached went ahead and signed it having no idea how much potential damage they are doing to Cincinnati's future.
These guys have to be stopped. We can't just sit back and let them run their radical campaigns and put handcuffs on our elected officials so that they must bow to the demands of the extreme conservatives in the area.

Mark Miller said...

I suppose you're against this amendment too then...

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

If representatives were carrying out the will of the people, their would be no grounds for referenda. There wouldn't be enough support to even get one on the ballot.

Politicians doing things to the people instead of for the people, however, get challenged even when they aren't running. Only tyrants and dictators fear the ballot box.

Randy Simes said...

^So are you saying you're in favor of a California-style government here in Cincinnati?

Mark Miller said...

Don't know what you mean by "California-style government." I'm in favor of the United States Constitution.

Is there something unconstitutional about California's government that I'm unaware of?

Or do you object to the redress clause of the First Amendment?

Randy Simes said...

If you read the post then you should understand what I mean by California style government.

Unknown said...

Mark, the post didn't call for Congress to make a law abridging the right of the people to petition their government. You're saying the passenger rail petition is actually a redress of grievances? What grievances, the possibility of elected officials to make a decision some disagree with? That happens everyday! Don't like it, mail your elected officials, newspapers, etc. Campaign for someone else next election, talk about the mistakes they've made, and so on. But pushing every potential decision by elected officials into a referendum by misleading the public leads to the problems Randy wrote in his post.

Mark Miller said...

Alright Nathan, let's say we go with your plan. Mallory et al. charges a couple hundred million bucks on the City credit card for a streetcar. Outraged voters then replace him and council during the next election cycle.

Then what? We try to send the streetcar back for a refund? By that time we're already on the hook for capital costs, and millions a year for operation & maintenance too. Same question for the water works. Let them sell it and hope the new crew can ask for it back?

Some decisions are so expensive, so far reaching, and so potentially damaging to the city, that they can't be undone.

At the county level, any individual resolution of the commission can be undone by a referendum process. This was successfully done against the jail tax 2 years ago.

No such process exists within the City Charter. Charter amendments are the only tool voters have to "petition the government for redress" at the city level.

If citizens object to closing health centers, they can be reopened under a new administration. Ditto for pools & rec centers. Laid-off workers can be rehired. I agree that petitions for this stuff would be over the top.

But it's perfectly reasonable to to use this tool to prevent 2 to 4 year bureaucrats from making a 35 year to permanent mistake.

UCstudent said...

It isn't about petitioning your government, that has nothing to do with either side's campaign. It is about COAST furthering their anti-transit agenda, while giving the electorate the illusion of "choice". Their tactics in 2002 were found to be ILLEGAL. There is so much misinformation in this town and COAST is playing off of it. What kind of city is against rail transit. Can you name me one successful metropolis without passenger rail? If Cincinnati is going to have a chance in 21st century urban competition passenger rail is an absolute necessity. If you are so opposed to additional spending why not let us vote on highway and road expenditures, gas tax doesn't even come close to being a usage tax.

David Ben said...

Hey Mark. Thanks for stopping by and having the type of genuine discussion necessary for a democracy to survive. Certainly we here at UrbanCincy post our own opinions, and we deserve to be challenged on them. So let’s have a dialogue: I disagree with your stated position for the following reasons:

1. Ruling through referenda is more closely related to a style of government called direct democracy, when we in fact have a representative democracy. He have this because it is generally agreed upon that few issues deserve direct public input, and for those extraordinary circumstances that do require direct input, some states allow that in the form of a referendum. To place a referendum on the ballot is to ask the electorate to approve or deny a specific proposal. Because there exists no national electorate in the US (recall, we have an electoral college, not a popular vote for our national leader), this allowance cannot come from the first amendment to the US Constitution, or any federal law for that matter. That’s why you’ve never seen a referendum on the national ballot. Instead, the authority to have referenda comes from each state’s constitution.

2. Please do not confuse “a petition [to] the government for a redress of grievances" and a referendum. They are two different things entirely. This amendment is a referendum that will fundamentally change the way that our local government operates. On the other hand, a petition is simply asking a leader to reconsider a position. This isn't a matter of semantics: they are two different things. To my knowledge, nobody is asking you to stop petitioning your government. We are simply warning the public that governing by referendum is a terribly inefficient, ineffective way of governing. We instead trust our elected officials to make the right decision. This issue falls well within the scope of a project our leaders can manage. You and I may disagree on the effectiveness of our leaders - that's fair. If you think our leaders are ineffective, vote them out. Don’t elect them and then tell them they can’t do anything. That wouldn’t make any sense.

3. Your implication that the streetcars could be "damaging to the city" and would be "a permanent mistake" reflects a lack of understanding of how successful they have been elsewhere. But, for the sake of a robust discussion, I'll bite: How would the streetcars be damaging to the city, or a permanent mistake? I ask because in the 2+ years I've been actively following this issue here, and comparing the proposals here with the several dozen successful systems in the US and abroad, I've seen nothing but positive prospects for our system. I encourage you to travel to any of these cities, and ask around about how they impacted the immediate neighborhood and surrounding region, both economically and culturally. If you can't/don't want to travel, please take an hour or 2 and do your own research so that you understand better what you sound to be so vehemently against. I can't speak for all of the streetcar supporters (there are too many of us), but the majority of the ones I know are very knowledgeable about this, and in our collective research, we've seen nothing but positives.

4. Finally, please recall that this proposed amendment does 2 things. It stalls all rail, not just the streetcar, and sets a precedent to govern in such a way so as to have government be ineffective. That's why people like Councilwoman Ghiz can be against both the streetcar and the amendment.

Again, thanks for your input. I hope you'll post back telling me how flawed my arguments are, because at the end of the day, solving genuine, legitimate disagreements like these are what this nation is all about.

Melanie said...

"At the county level, any individual resolution of the commission can be undone by a referendum process. This was successfully done against the jail tax 2 years ago."

And look at how wonderful that has worked out for us (note sarcasm).

Unknown said...

You can't elect individuals and then call take backs when they make a decision that you don't like.

People who support these referendums on spending say that they give the people a voice, but the ironic thing is that it totally negates the voice of the people that elected their representatives in the last election.

UCstudent said...

Get it together folks, you're making an argument that only fuels the fire of the opposition! It isn't about squashing "rule by referendum", it needs to be more of "it's the economy stupid!". When you keep regurgitating that California style government rhetoric, the opposition has been very successful at spinning it to, being against voter choice and for government "boondoggle". The point is COAST is dictating the terms of the debate, that means they are a step ahead. The rhetoric I'm reading here seems to imply that if our representatives make egregious decisions we should just sit on our hands until the next election cycle, in that way (unfortunately) Mark is right. Is that what we want, to prove these jerks right? I know I don't. All that good governance crap doesn't hit home with people IMHO. Having control of our lives and the city we live in is very important to us, if our campaign appears to be in opposition to having a voice or a say in our own lives and livelihoods we are going to lose!

Unknown said...

Your the short term supporters of the street car need to leave the referendum argument behind because that battle has already been lost. Concentration needs to be turned toward making the streetcar look attractive to voters.

But in the long term, I really do think that we need to address this form of government, and whether it is right for our city.

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