Monday, December 22, 2008

City Government by Referendum: A Good Idea?

Last week, the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP announced that it will seek to place on the 2009 ballot an initiative to bar the creation of a streetcar in Cincinnati. (Those of you who regularly follow this blog know that I'm only lukewarm to the idea. While originally opposed, I've come around to support streetcars, though I've still not drunk the Koolaid offered by those who claim that light rail is our only, best hope for revitalization.)

This post is most assuredly not about streetcars. Instead, it's about whether this is an appropriate way for City government to be run. Earlier this year, the NAACP successfully opposed the use of "red light cameras," adding an amendment to the City Charter that prohibits them. I voted against the measure--not because I think the cameras are a good idea (they're a terrible idea), but because I didn't (and don't) believe it's an appropriate issue for a city charter.

I'm still not sold 100 percent on streetcars, but I'm not even sure how the proposed Charter amendment will read: "Cincinnati shall never have light rail"? That doesn't make sense. It's particularly troubling that the streetcar plan (at least in its current iteration) doesn't involve a tax increase. So we're talking about amending the charter to prevent a specific expenditure by Council, not to head off a tax increase or alter the structure of our government.

So here's my question: is this the right way to run City government? How many decisions should be decided by referendum? And if we really like referenda, should we consider amending our charter (and perhaps the Revised Code--I'm not sure) so that we could enact an ordinance by referendum, rather than constantly changing the Charter with day-to-day issues like expenditures or red-light cameras, thus permitting the Charter to do what it should: deal almost explicitly with the structure of government?

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