A Solution Rube Goldberg Would Love

January 26, 1995

Members of the Columbia Council who have raised doubts about the wisdom of allowing residents to bring community issues to referendum are on the money.

Referendums surely have a place, particularly in charting a course on broad issues, but they are not an effective way to run government. As long as there are elections to public office, there should be no need for these so-called "non-binding" polls to dictate how those elected officials perform.

Michael Rethman, a Columbia Council member from the village of Hickory Ridge, initially supported the idea of allowing referendum, but had a change of heart. In explaining his decision, he used some words that will undoubtedly haunt him. Referendums, he said, would "hamstring" the council by allowing "a small minority of people" to shape Columbia's agenda and cause "acrimony."

The remark was a veiled reference to critics of the council, many of whom are involved in the effort to incorporate Columbia and replace the current quasi-homeowner association system with a full-fledged city government. But his words had the effect of reinforcing the very image the council was trying to dispel by considering referendums; that the council is arrogant and out of touch.

Not all proponents of referendums are disgruntled naysayers out to gain unfair advantage over the process. There are legitimate concerns driving their movement, not the least of which is that some residents feel excised from the current political process because Columbia's voting rules in many cases allow only one vote per household. But that's a case for changing voting rules, not for imposing another faulty system upon the existing faulty system.

Referendums, even when non-binding, can complicate the deliberative process by taking power away from those who have supposedly been vested with it. A solution befitting Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist noted for designing outlandish contraptions, is no way to fix Columbia's governance problem. If residents want to have more say in their governance, they need to address the voting rules. And above all, those who can vote should go to the polls and elect representatives whose views reflect theirs. If they want to be even more directly involved, they should throw their own hats into the political ring.

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