“The initiative, referendum and recall.” Those three concepts were listed in my college political science book under the heading, “More solutions from the laboratory of democracy.”
But now, years later, how often are those “solutions” used? True, every once in awhile, there’s a state referendum on the November ballot, usually on some non-controversial topic like the Third Water Tunnel or a change in the city charter. These referendums are usually the least-paid-attention-to items on the ballot, especially in a hot election year. A year or so ago, there was an unsuccessful effort to recall the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.
In an ideal world, we would have referendums on every important question concerning the nation, like, “Should we invade Iraq?” I don’t foresee this happening any time soon. However, there’s one arena that has possibilities for referendums—the local arena. Consider this:
By now, every reader of this paper knows that the effort to close Long Island College Hospital was defeated, at least temporarily. But it took a threat of court action and pressure by important state and local officials to convince the SUNY board to reconsider its decision.
Similarly, the Brooklyn Public Library has made up its mind to close the Brooklyn Heights branch, have the city sell the property to a private developer, then re-establish the library in a smaller space, possibly within the condo development.
In both of these cases, decisions affecting thousands of people (and in the case of LICH, many more) were made by a small group of people endowed with almost dictatorial powers. This, to me, is incompatible with our claim to be a democracy.
True, decisions affecting even larger numbers of people are made by boards of directors in the private sector. But the private sector doesn’t claim to work in the public interest, and, for the most part (environmental and safety concerns are glaring exceptions), decisions made by these corporations mainly affect the corporation’s shareholders and customers.
If, because of bad decisions by GM’s management and board, GM goes out of business, GM customers will buy Fords or Toyotas. If, for the same reason, Carvel goes out of business, its customers will go to Baskin Robbins. However, users of public or publicly funded institutions like libraries, hospitals and schools have no such alternatives.
Institutions such as schools, hospitals, mass transit and libraries, on the other hand, are basically a public trust. It is inconceivable that in this day and age, decisions that affect tens of thousands of people are being made by a group of fewer than 10 people, often behind closed doors.
That’s why, wherever possible, I believe it would be a good idea to have referendums about important issues in the public sphere. If nothing else, it would clear up a lot of confusion, prevent a lot of controversy and nip a lot of bad feelings in the bud.
The program by which City Council members let their constituents vote on which measures to spend a discretionary funding on is a good thing. But this is only a first step. Why not let the users of transit, parks, libraries, hospitals and so forth have their say? That doesn’t mean that boards of directors won’t have a function. But the initiative, referendum and recall should – at last – find their proper place in our society.