By Dom Nozzi
In the fall 2015 elections, Boulder citizens will be voting on Ballot Issue 300, “Neighborhoods’ Right to Vote on Land Use Regulation Changes.” It is a form of direct democracy. Many citizens in Boulder have lost confidence in the ability of their elected representatives to “listen” to neighborhoods and vote accordingly.
But there are reasons our society is a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy. Direct democracy does not work – particularly in a complex society such as ours. If it did, we would simply need computers to measure public opinion on community issues rather than electing representatives.
Had direct democracy been used in Boulder in the 1970s for the conversion of Pearl Street Mall into what has become a much loved pedestrian mall, it would have never been approved, as it would have lost badly in a direct vote. There would be no Boulderado hotel – perhaps the most loved building in Boulder today, no Holiday neighborhood – an excellent and admired example of a walkable mixed-use neighborhood, much less residential and office development in downtown Boulder, and no Mapleton neighborhood – a charming and attractive Victorian neighborhood that is so cherished by so many that its homes are exceptionally expensive.
There are many additional reasons why direct voting as proposed by Measure 300 is a bad idea.
For example, the town planning profession is trivialized by suggesting that no advanced knowledge is necessary to make intelligent decisions about community development.
If direct voting is a good idea, why are we not, say, having a neighborhood vote on whether a community tax increase should apply to the neighborhood?
Is Boulder comfortable with its taxes being increased substantially to pay for such a large increase in community voting and added time needed by staff to prepare such votes?
Renters will not be allowed to vote.
In a society such as ours where there are enormous, counterproductive subsidies in place that distort the “signals” we citizens get, it is inevitable that many votes will be counter to neighborhood and community interests. For example, very high subsidies for car travel (free parking and underpriced gas) lead many to be artificially over-wedded to car travel.
“Right to Vote” will give even more advantages to more wealthy, large developers who are powerful enough to mount successful campaigns to prevail in a neighborhood vote (compared to smaller, less wealthy, local developers). Similarly, more wealthy neighborhoods will be advantaged over less wealthy neighborhoods for similar reasons.
Measure 300 really does nothing, when it comes right down to it, to protect or promote quality of life. It turns out that it is a “no growth” effort masquerading as a community benefit.