Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Discouraged by Democracy: Voices From a Small Town

An artist paints in our city's heritage orchard, named a City Historic Landmark.

We've all read the articles during this 2016 U.S. presidential election that this is the year of the angry voter. This growing citizen frustration has become the big story to the observers inside the Beltway, where I once worked as a reporter. 

The result of this citizen anger has certainly been an unpredictable set of candidates. I've covered a lot of presidential elections and I've never seen anything it. But beyond the voter frustration reporters have uncovered at the national level,  I believe we're seeing an anger toward every level of government. Why? In city, county, state and federal halls of power, there is a growing sense that the mighty get what they want, and the rest of the folks can lump it.

Take my hometown. We had a big bond election for a new Community Center this past summer. The majority of the city's power structure favored it. Many in this group have worked over the last decade to transform our small residential community from the village it has been for six decades, into one that is more to their liking: i.e. one with taller buildings and denser construction. They've changed our zoning rules to encourage this. Residents have complained, but the transformation continues.

The $65M bond was presented to citizens without even a drawing of the Community Center it proposed to build. It was voted on in a special election, recommended by a consultant who advised that special elections are easier to win as they generally draw fewer voters. The proposal would have initiated the largest construction project in our city's history. It was designed for a historic parcel of land that sits adjacent to a residential street. The Environmental Impact Report allowed for the clear cutting of the heritage apricot orchard which sits next to the property. The orchard is a City Historic Landmark and was set aside by our city's founders to encircle our City Hall. One city council member dismissed it as an "underutilized civic asset."

The heavy rains from El Nino in California have brought out a stunning crop of mustard 
in the orchard that surrounds our City Hall.

As the campaign appeared to be going against the city, we who walked the precints, were told by representatives of the city's most powerful:  "Be careful, " they said. "If you vote against this, you may get something even worse."

And that is just what has happened. Frustrated citizens defeated this bond by 71%. I've never covered an election that lopsided. What happened next? Our city is now in talks with the local school board to turn the property into a large school/civic center complex. Pave it over. Build it higher, denser and larger. Indeed: this new proposal is more than three times larger than the one voters defeated.

The late economist Milton Friedman theorized that these battles are especially difficult for voters to win because of the concentrated benefits they bring to special interests and the diffused costs they disperse among the taxpayers. His theory has certainly proved true here. When well-meaning parents approved a school bond last year, it was for $150M and had no strings attached. The school board now has the ability to hand out the concentrated benefits, while diffusing the costs over thousands of taxpayers and decades of time.

Voters who sent a message to their government in my hometown with a 71% smackdown just got a message right back.

Is it any wonder voters are angry?

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