Friday, November 2, 2007

A Referendum of the Minority

Americans take their right to vote very seriously. And Texans are more vehement than most about the ideals of “one person, one vote” and “majority rules.” Strange, then, that turnout at national elections remains dismal, and turnout for municipal elections is even worse. During this year’s Frisco City Council race, the number of people who voted was downright pathetic.

Well, to quote the popular Texas vernacular, them chickens have come home to roost.

In August, our City Council took up the contentious issue of late night liquor sales. Current law curtails the serving of alcoholic beverages after midnight. Many local businesses have complained that this puts them at a disadvantage when competing with establishments in neighboring cities, where the cutoff is 2 AM. After much debate, the council members passed an ordinance extending Frisco’s service hours. Six businesses then applied for and received permits to begin late night sales.

Not so fast.

The ink was barely dry on the ordinance before a group of citizens put together a petition to take the matter out of the hands of the council and put it to a public vote. This process is outlined in our city charter to provide citizens with a chance to have their say on any ordinance of significant importance. That’s democracy in action.

But in a city of nearly 100,000 people, how many would have to sign such a petition to second guess our elected officials? Two thirds, maybe? Half? No, the charter requires a valid petition to contain thirty percent – almost one third – of the number of voters in the last municipal election. Clearly the intent is that only those issues of a significant nature would be addressed through this process. Indeed, in over 20 years, it has never been invoked.

Now here’s the sticky part. Since less than 3000 people voted in last May’s election, that means that a mere 168 signatures were required on the petition. That’s one TENTH of one percent of the population of Frisco.

Two things are disturbing about this situation. The first is that such a small number of people can effectively overturn just about any decision of the city council. In this instance, based on an interpretation of the charter, the council suspended the licenses they had already granted and decided not to accept any further applications. Since the next scheduled municipal election isn’t until May, this “super-minority” has effectively nullified the action of the council for at least seven months. Worse, it has adversely affected several of the businesses who had licenses, causing some to lay off employees.

The second issue of concern is the prospect that these kinds of referenda will become the norm in our city government. We’ve seen a similar effect in California, where every other issue is settled by a very expensive election. The reason we elect a city council – or a legislature – is so they can represent us and make decisions on our behalf. To some, it may sound ideal to have every issue decided by a popular vote. But I’m far more comfortable with the representative government our Founding Fathers established that allows for reasoned debate among elected officials.

Of course, the whole referendum process would function properly if a reasonable number of people took the time to vote in each election. Then, only those key issues which matter to a large number of voters would get on the docket. Hopefully, in the upcoming mayoral election, more of you will get out to cast a ballot. After all, the concept of one person, one vote only works when you actually DO it.

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