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Truth and hysteria about Hometown Democracy

A bunch of Greek guys started a political debate 2,500 years ago that we're still fighting about.

Can people govern themselves wisely by a direct vote?

Or should they put their trust in leaders to make wise decisions?

Here in Florida, we're smack in the middle of that age-old fight. This November we'll vote on the idea called "Hometown Democracy."

Hometown Democracy (Amendment 4 on the ballot) would require a local election for major local growth decisions, rather than trusting the County Commission or City Council to make them.

Hometown Democracy was put on the ballot by a citizen petition. The basic argument is that local governments in Florida are simply incapable of saying no to developers, profit and sprawl.

There are many arguments against Amendment 4, and some of them are valid.

Some, I said. Others are exaggerations and distortions and scare tactics. But if I were arguing against it, I'd say:

• Land use decisions can be complicated and technical. Are they really the kind of thing to be decided by slogans and elections?

• Is it fair to say that a property owner's use of his or her own land depends on how good a campaign that owner can run ?

• Is it really practical to put every one of these decisions to a vote? Opponents warn of hundreds of new elections every year. I don't think there will be that many — landowners will tailor their plans to conform with existing rules — but there will be more.

• Does it make sense to say that the voters of an entire city or county should decide an issue that might affect only one neighborhood? Now a single area can organize and bring pressure on a few elected officials. Much harder to sway an entire city or county.

• There is no room for compromise under Hometown Democracy. At least under the current system opponents can sometimes win concessions from developers. This makes the decision all-or-nothing.

And yet, most of the opposition is melodramatic, sky-is-falling nonsense.

It isn't going to destroy Florida. It isn't going to cause another recession. It isn't going to promote "sprawl." (Good grief! Local politicians in the pockets of developers who create sprawl is the argument for it.)

Here is who is against Hometown Democracy: Builders. Big business. People who make money by paving Florida. And the government, which hates it when citizens try to take away its power.

Opponents like to cite one of our communities here in Tampa Bay, St. Pete Beach, as an example of why Amendment 4 is a bad idea.

But that is a distortion. Here is what happened in St. Pete Beach: One group of citizens did try to impose a Hometown Democracy-style requirement for voter approval of growth decisions.

But another group fought back with its own petition for a different set of rules, and everybody has been suing the dickens out of each other ever since. This has nothing to do with how Hometown Democracy would actually work.

In other words, half the legal mess in St. Pete Beach is over pro-development citizen petitions. Good grief again! Citing that fight as a "refutation" of Amendment 4 reminds me of the old joke of somebody who kills his parents, then asks for mercy because he's an orphan.

Remember the much-quoted line from Winston Churchill: Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Hometown Democracy is clunky. It is inefficient. It converts policy decisions into political campaigns. There are many reasons not to like it.

But I've spent nearly 30 years in Florida watching roomfuls of anguished citizens begging their County Commission or City Council not to hurt them for the benefit of some developer who hired the right well-connected lawyer-slash-campaign contributor. And the vast majority of the time, money and power have won the fight.

So, yeah, I think Hometown Democracy is the worst idea in the world. Except for what we've got now.

Truth and hysteria about Hometown Democracy 03/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 20, 2010 9:36pm]
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