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Can too much 'direct democracy' actually hurt us?

Name of deceased: Hometown Democracy.

Date of demise: March 8, 2011.

Place of death: St. Pete Beach, Florida.

Last week the voters of St. Pete Beach in Pinellas County decided to give up their experiment with direct democracy.

They returned the power to City Hall to make important decisions about growth. They even agreed to make it harder to put their own citizen petitions on future ballots.

This was a remarkable turnaround from 2006, when St. Pete Beach residents voted to take over planning decisions by direct election.

Why the reversal? Mostly because the city has been torn by political civil war, rival petition drives and lawsuits ever since. A lot of folks just got sick of it.

St. Pete Beach became the poster child in the statewide Hometown Democracy debate last year, and Florida voters rejected the notion of writing direct voter control into our state Constitution.

In a larger sense, this fight over direct democracy has been a key struggle in Florida over the past two decades, maybe just as important as the one between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

How much direct say should voters have in running their government? Should there be a lot — or should we concentrate on the process of electing good representatives to make the decisions?

Citizen petitions to amend our Constitution have become a modern staple. Interestingly, in Florida they have come in two general waves, first conservative, then liberal.

In the 1990s, citizens petitioned for caps on taxes and fees, creating the "Save Our Homes" cap on tax assessments over the objection of many in the government. They petitioned for longer prison sentences for inmates. They petitioned to end affirmative action. (That one was thrown out by the courts.)

In this decade, with Republicans in firm control, there has been a counterreaction of petitions with a liberal/progressive bent: a higher minimum wage, a ban on public cigarette smoking, smaller class sizes in public schools, fair districts for future elections and Hometown Democracy itself.

The other day a state House member from St. Petersburg proposed an even greater expansion of direct democracy: a recall process for Florida's governor, Cabinet and Legislature. (Only local officials can be recalled now.)

"Engaged citizens deserve the tools to hold their public servants accountable without having to wait for the next election," says the sponsor of the idea, Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

Since Kriseman is a Democrat, and the governor, Cabinet and majority of the Legislature are Republican, they aren't likely to pass his idea. After all, it's their ox that would be gored.

Sure, having a recall is tempting — especially if you don't happen to like who's in office now. But it comes with the price tag of a permanent, toxic campaign. As soon as one bunch gets elected with 51 percent of the vote, the other side can get the signatures of 20 percent and force a do over. It would be St. Pete Beach writ large.

This brings us to an interesting question.

• • •

Think about a tea kettle. When you turn the heat on, the pressure inside rises until the whistle blows.

Now think about a tea kettle with a hole punched in it. The water still gets hot, but it never builds up enough pressure to blow the whistle.

Elections are the whistle.

Direct democracy is the hole, and by design, too — in fact, the right to petition in Florida is often described as a "safety valve."

We've spent a lot of energy in this state on petition drives and constitutional amendments. Some were good ideas and some were terrible, but all of them bled steam away from the process of electing a governor and Legislature.

What if there were no petitions, no direct democracy at all? What if everyone who was dissatisfied in Florida had no choice except to find good opponents to the bunch in power, work hard to support them, and force through a change at the ballot box?

Kooky talk, I guess. I probably don't mean it. But as the years pass, the question does keep coming back to me.

Can too much 'direct democracy' actually hurt us? 03/12/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 13, 2011 2:21pm]
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