Flawed solution to local politics
Government is imperfect, but it’s also the operating system of society. Fortunately we have the opportunity to influence how government operates, which is what the upcoming vote on home rule is all about.
I did not support home rule last November, but I’ve changed my position on the matter because after last fall’s election, the home rule charter commission wisely decided to poll the voters to find out why the measure failed. Then, after listening to the citizenry, the charter commission modified the charter. But let’s start at the beginning and work our way through this issue step-by-step.
One, because of certain misleading statements, home rule is often conflated with the early childhood development spending debate, i.e. “What don’t our commissioners understand about no?” While there’s an oblique connection, comparisons between the two are inaccurate.
Last November, Eagle County voters said no to the “kiddie tax” and home rule. Nevertheless, our commissioners have told us that the voters were really OK with additional early childhood spending.
But because there was no addendum to the ballot indicating that in the event this referendum fails, we the voters are OK with additional spending if the commissioners can “find” the money in the budget, no one knows whether or not that statement is accurate.
Unlike the home-rule charter commission, our board of commissioners never asked the voters. Meanwhile, our commissioners appear to be proceeding full-speed-ahead with new early childhood programs. As a result, many feel their votes were disregarded.
The difference between these two situations should be obvious. Early childhood spending is being driven by a single commissioner who has never attempted to clarify the matter; home rule is driven by 11 duly elected charter commission members who polled the voters and then incorporated their responses into a new charter.
Two, because of the way home rule has been mischaracterized; many think we’re being asked to vote on the same charter that failed last fall. That is not the case ” the charter we are voting on today is different.
To wit: Many did not support home rule last fall because the original charter prohibited party affiliation. Among other reasons, many voters felt that without party affiliation our commissioners could be handicapped when petitioning the legislature or the governor at the state capitol. But that aspect of the charter has now been changed, and party affiliations are included in the charter this time around.
Three, answers to the most common objections to home rule:
– Other counties do not have home rule: Did those other counties have a proactive charter commission that took the time to solicit voter input as ours did? Eagle County has its own unique set of issues and geography, such as having a significant portion of our population living in the Roaring Fork Valley.
– We will reach the population necessary (70,000) for home rule soon enough anyway: The nexus of the county’s projected growth and the U.S. Census occurs in 2020. If we don’t do it now, it might be 15 years before we can expand from three to five commissioners.
– Increased costs: One half of one percent of the county’s annual budget for two new commissioners and an administrative assistant is a bargain for more flexible county government.
– Home rule is bigger government: If ever a red herring, this is it. Increasing the number of county employees from roughly 500 to 503 isn’t “bigger government.” There is not a direct correlation between the size of the county commission and the functioning of county government. If we elect five commissioners who are committed to less bureaucracy and smaller government; then we will likely receive less bureaucracy and smaller government. Put another way, who we put into office is far more important than how many we put there.
Four, the benefits to home rule:
– It increases the number of commissioners from three to five ” a very good idea considering the complexity of the issues facing our community.
– It reduces the influence a single, agenda-driven commissioner can have on the political process.
– It partitions districts into a more manageable size, giving the commissioner an incentive to become closer to his or her constituency, which I believe will translate into greater accountability.
– Home rule is fair. It affords citizens better representation across the entirety of the county.
– Lastly and perhaps the most important benefit to home rule is removing the restriction imposed by state law prohibiting two commissions from speaking about county business unless they are in a public forum.
Unless we allow our commissioners to speak with each other, negotiate and reach compromises outside of a public forum, we are limiting their ability to govern.
And let’s not kid ourselves; that restriction has caused, and continues to cause enormous political polarization throughout the community.
There are potential downsides to any form of government. Nevertheless, we’ve all experienced situations where a private discussion accomplished more in minutes than a public discussion could have in days.
It’s human nature that whenever more than two people interact, “politics” on some level will enter the equation. This is true in boardrooms, classrooms, around the evening dinner table and in county offices, so by removing the handcuffs from our public officials we’re allowing them to use their own interpersonal skills to get the job done, which is what we elected them to do.
Home rule isn’t perfect ” no form of government is ” but the upsides are far greater than the potential downsides.
I also like the idea of introducing a greater measure of flexibility and accountability into the political process.
Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.