Back in those cherished days of yesteryear, when there was no such thing as income tax and government was small, physicians treated patients suffering from infections by opening their veins and bleeding them, sometimes to death. This should illustrate that sometimes a cure can be far worse than the condition it purports to treat.
Today, we live in an age where, though good times might not be forgotten, in practice the world has been turned upside-down.
This fall, for instance, we are witnessing a remarkable level of frustration and anger in the United States. Unhappiness that begins as an unfocused feeling because of economic uncertainty has tended to focus on whomever happens to hold elected office. In such times, there is a tendency to lash out.
One of the more pernicious examples of this acting out is Florida’s proposed Amendment 4.
Masquerading under the apple-pie title of “Hometown Democracy,” this gem of irrationality essentially tells the electorate to forget about whomever they have voted for in the past or present. It argues that those in office cannot be trusted to exercise their responsibilities with regard to land use and that these responsibilities at certain points should be brought back to voters via referendum.
It is true that from time to time people are elected who have no business in office. When that happens, the electorate has another chance at it during the next election. (Or, if the voter lives in Longboat Key, Sarasota County or Alaska, the elected official simply quits.)
To supporters of Amendment 4, this time-tested route is not good enough. They argue that out-of-control development is so devastating to Florida that an immediate and draconian remedy is required.
Whether development is or is not “out of control” is certainly debatable. To anyone who has lived next to undeveloped property where the status has changed to being developed, there is an immediate impact that may be perceived as a negative. However, ours is a society where the rights of individuals are balanced first among immediate parties and then with the community as a whole.
In our representative form of government — where officials are elected in a democratic process — we delegate power to those in office. They have the responsibility to judge matters before them under existing law, precedent and current community needs. We have not, nor should we, put every matter to a vote of the public, be it the salary of firemen, the name on a public building or even land-use matters. Quite simply, our forebears chose another system, and it has served us pretty well.
Proponents of Amendment 4 argue that people similar to me “don’t trust the public.” No, we trust the public to elect officials who are qualified. We trust the public to speak out during matters that are important to them by the time-honored process of writing, phoning and appearing at public hearings, thus making certain officials take the public viewpoint into consideration.
More often than not, this way of doing things seems to work. In the recent matter of the Longboat Key Club’s application to redevelop part of its property, there were extensive public hearings and input. The decision in place did not please everyone, but it was a decision made with full public participation, Similarly, in the Tara community in East Manatee County, citizens prevailed upon the County Commission to reject a developer proposal.
To paraphrase Hyman Roth in the “The Godfather: Part II,” “This is the process we have chosen.” We do not govern by the referendum. Referenda are time-consuming, they are costly to taxpayers, they are subject to distorted and divisive advertising and in their worst case they can be akin to mob rule.
Use your imagination for a moment. This is not a case from democracy in action, but it is a story just about everyone knows: When Moses descended from the mountain with the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, he found his people dancing around a graven image — the Golden Calf. We may wonder what the result of a referendum at that immediate moment, in the emotion of the moment, might have been. Admittedly, this may not be the greatest analogy, but it may illustrate how emotion can be injected into the detriment of good choices.
Florida and its communities — like it or not — are in a constant competition for investment capital with all the other states and communities. In these times of unemployment and failing businesses, the last thing we need is an additional barrier, real or perceived. Those wishing to consider Florida for their investments, which could include renovating decaying strip centers or downtowns, will have enough existing hurdles and processes to overcome. We don’t need to erect a keep-out sign.
You may be angry this election. And if you are, you have many choices to take it out on people on the ballot. But please do not be so angry that you approve a process that will add costs and hurt the economy that supports our community.
If you want to say “no” to something, say “no” to Amendment 4.
Terry Gans is a Longboat Key resident.