One of the biggest questions an elected official has to face is when and if the elected body should buck the will of the people and do what they believe is right. It feels like it has been a long time since they’ve done it in an overt and thorough way.
When the Vanguard first started, it felt like the council did this repeatedly – there were times they were going to have their three votes locked in no matter what anyone said. A good example was the 4-1 vote to approve Covell Village and put it on the ballot, only to have the voters reject it by a 60-40 margin. The problem of course is that it was not necessarily clear at the time of the council vote that Measure X would go down as widely as it did.
You might argue there was the vote on the water that was rescinded after opponents gathered signatures to put it on the ballot. The problem of course is that the voters, while wanting to weigh in and force in improvements, actually approved the surface water project.
You could argue the example of Nishi 1.0, where the council voted to approve it by a 5-0 vote, but the voters narrowly voted it down by 700 votes. But again, it was not clearly going to go down at the time of the vote and the vote was narrow.
You could argue about Wild Horse Ranch – a 3-2 vote of council, a clear controversy at the time it was put on the ballot and a 3 to 1 margin of defeat. That is pretty close.
Nothing else really comes to mind but the problem is that, in a town without polling where we can only guess about public opinion based on the people in the room and emails, it is hard to know.
It certainly feels like the majority of the public is against paid parking. This is a case where the experts, as we pointed out in yesterday’s column, seem to be at odds with the stakeholders and the public.
Mayor Brett Lee indicated on Tuesday that emails were running about five to one against the proposal. It wasn’t as overwhelming in the council chambers, but still 60 to 70 percent opposed the proposal there.
One of the problems that we have is gauging actual public opinion. That gives the council considerable leeway, even if it is just in their own minds.
Mayor Lee noted that “council members are elected to make decisions based on their best judgment.” He said, it is not “which side is the loudest. Just loading more people into the council chambers is not necessarily going to get the council to side with you.”
But let’s not be naïve – public opinion matters and it matters a lot. Perhaps the clearest cut case was fluoridation. I think if the council was left to make the decision based on staff and experts, they would have voted to fluoridate the water a few years ago.
However, after watching the public debate and listening to the passion of the opposition, I think the council realized that they could vote to support fluoridation but it would trigger perhaps recalls and bitter opposition, and the rest of their agenda would be bogged down for a long time.
They made a strategic decision on an issue that, while not quite peripheral to their duties, was definitely not in the core of their priorities. Paid parking is different – this is a core function of the council and they have a duty to set policy on the Davis Downtown and parking. In short, they could get away with bowing to public opinion on fluoridation but they can’t simply punt on parking issues.
The dilemma is one that columnist Bob Dunning discusses in his column on Sunday.
He writes: “An interesting position, to be sure. On the one hand, yes, you want an elected official with sound judgment. Lee passes that test with flying colors. On the other hand, you want an elected official who’s responsive to the wishes of the people.”
He continues: “It’s an age-old argument playing out poorly in the halls of Congress, where our elected representatives seem to care only about what the voters in their district want, even if it’s not in the best interests of the country.
“As far as the validity of one side or the other ‘packing the chambers,’ if the council is not going to be impressed at all by the sheer volume of either support or dissent, then why have public comment in the first place? Just vote your conscience, council folks, and be done with it.”
He concludes: “Then again, any council member who routinely ignores a true public sentiment of five-to-one is not likely to be a council member for long.”
While I catch his drift, the problem in the halls of Congress is not the problem that the council faces. The congressional representatives are elected to represent their districts in Congress, not necessarily the nation as a whole. This would be a valid point here if we had district rather than at-large elections.
The need to weigh the risks of voting one’s conscience against an opposing public is a quandary for a democracy – especially if you believe that the public, while intelligent, does not have all the information that they need to make an informed decision.
That is, in fact, why we have representative democracy in the first place. A long time ago, the founders of this nation were fearful of the passions of the people running away from their better judgment. In modern times, the amount of expertise makes it more and more difficult for lay people to weigh in on certain issues.
We have attempted to have the best of both worlds by electing representatives who hire experts so that the policymakers are responsive to the public, but have the benefit of study and expertise.
The question comes down to this: can the council do what they believe is the right thing if they believe the right thing could get them voted out of office at the next election? I don’t know that we know what will happen in this case.
I do, however, believe that council should do what they believe is the right thing – after all, if we simply run democracy by those who have the loudest voice, we not only stand to trample the rights of the minority, we also negate the reason we elected representatives in the first place.
—David M. Greenwald reporting