The move to take the manner in which the town regulates so-called Big Box development to the vote, via a referendum, brings to mind again the question of whether the referendum process always benefits a community, state or nation.
Our answer to the question is that government by referendum, with a few exceptions granted, has a spotty record and, in some cases, has produced big problems. We do not favor it. Instead, we remain strong advocates of representative government — itself, of course, hardly immune to criticism.
The Athenians had a way of dealing with governmental decisions: a set number of citizens of the city-state were picked at random to serve a year, running the government. A quaint notion — and one hardly suited to contemporary society. We believe government by referendum is just as unworkable, in particular in light of the complexity of issues and the ease with which faulty and often deliberately false information is increasingly disseminated in this culture. We need competent representatives, elected to embody constituents and their interests – representatives tasked with obtaining accurate information, with dealing with often complicated and ambiguous situations, and making decisions that benefit the majority of those whom they serve.
When those representatives make an “error” the answer should rarely if ever be a referendum on the decision. Public action should take the form of protest in public forums designed to cause a reversal of action and, in extreme cases, moves to recall and replace elected officials.
In the current situation, the demand for a vote on how or if the town will regulate so-called Big Box businesses results from a badly thought-out process on the part of town officials.
The regulations in place were the product of efforts by citizens who worked hard to develop them. That process involved significant public input.
The process that led to a council vote to delete sections of the Land Use and Development Code dealing with large commercial development (including design standards and required impact studies for proposed developments of more than 50,000 square feet) did not involve the same level of input. Had it done so, the result could have been much different.
There are those who argue that restrictions on Big Box development could hurt the town economically. They claim such development will bring jobs and tax revenues to the town and surrounding area — things needed in these lean times. They claim the town is quickly gaining a reputation as unfriendly to business.
Others claim that large-scale retailers drive small businesses to ruin, replace decent salaried jobs with low-paying, part-time work. Some claim that Big Box development is out of character in a town that works hard to provide a unique atmosphere for residents and visitors.
An effective process, involving a series of public meetings, would have allowed proponents on both sides of the issue to express opinions and a worthy compromise to be achieved, compromise being the ultimate aim of competent leadership in all but the most extreme circumstances. Public officials must be able to alter regulations in accord with changing circumstances, but an appropriate and workable change relating to emotionally-loaded issues such as this can only take place with public participation.
Archuleta County learned this recently when proposed restrictions on recreation vehicle use on residential lots came under fire from angry county residents. The county wisely retreated from immediate action and has, instead, scheduled a number of meetings in various “neighborhoods” and “communities” in the county to look at options for community-specific regulations.
Sure, there will be complaints once decisions are reached, but if the process is open and the public is involved, the majority of citizens served will be content with the change.
And elected officials will have done their job with no need of a costly and potentially confusing referendum vote.