Another take on charter amendments

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As someone who was elected to the County Council and served a four-year term, I am an unwavering supporter of representative government. People elect leaders with the hope that they will always act competently and in the best interest of the citizens. When that occurs, we enjoy representative government at its finest. When it doesn’t occur, however, a community can potentially suffer disastrous and enduring consequences.
My experience on the County Council taught me several things:
• that council members are not infallible or even necessarily above average in their critical thinking or brainstorming skills;
• that the groupthink environment that comes from serving on a highly cohesive council does not always lead to the best decisions;
• and that the highly insular nature of relying almost exclusively on Los Alamos County staff members or their hand-picked, contracted “experts,” many of whom do not even live in our community, often leaves County Council members relatively clueless about the actual desires of the majority of the citizens they serve.
For these reasons (and several others I won’t state here), I believe that it is vitally important for the citizens of this community to have reasonable methods to correct bad Council decisions, influence sound priorities and expenditures if necessary, or, even in some rare and extreme cases, recall an elected official. This is precisely why I plan to vote against all of the proposed amendments to the Los Alamos County Charter.
The four proposed amendments are extremely confusing to most people who don’t spend their lives studying local politics. Opponents and proponents have thrown around bewildering or alarming-sounding phrases such as “logrolling,” “good governance,” “obstructing progress,” or “preserving democracy.” Such confusion could lead citizens to abstain from voting on the four questions or to simply go with the bandwagon of whichever side argues the loudest. I personally believe citizens can pierce the perplexity and weigh the amendments in a much simpler manner than the arcane nomenclature that is being bandied about might suggest.
In straightforward terms, the proposed County Charter amendments, if passed, would gut citizen options for referendum, recall and initiative — essentially the ability of citizens to reaffirm or deny questionable council actions by vote or remove an elected official from office. The proposed amendments eviscerate potential public participation in key decisions by cutting the timeframe allowed for collecting signatures on some citizen-directed legislation by half to an impossibly brief three-month period, while at the same time increasing by as much as 50 percent the number of signatures required on certain petitions.
In the 30 years that I’ve been voting, attempts at citizen-directed legislation in Los Alamos have been minimal. It would be a real stretch for anyone to argue that the referendum, recall or initiative process in this community has been abused during the past 30 years. In fact, it has rarely been used, and in the cases where it was, it was initiated for sound reasons. This lack of abuse implies that the current referendum, recall and initiative process is entirely reasonable and practical.
During that same 30-year period, however, we have witnessed ever-increasing examples of corruption, abuse of power and government waste occurring at all levels of government nationwide. Los Alamos has been lucky in its lack of scandal, perhaps due in part to our community’s reasonable referendum, recall and initiative processes. Unfortunately, weakening the process by which citizens can remedy questionable or outright negligent decisions or remove corrupt politicians from office accomplishes nothing other than emboldening the crooked and emasculating the electorate.
With this in mind, a voter could potentially simplify the reasoning process for supporting or opposing the proposed Charter amendments as follows:
If you agree that the referendum, initiative and recall process has been abused in Los Alamos County; that politicians always have made and always will make the best decisions for our community; and that Los Alamos politics can never become corrupt or tainted by outside forces that are not subject to the scrutiny and accountability inherent in the elective process, then you probably should vote in favor of the proposed Charter amendments.
On the other hand, if you do not believe any or all of the above naïve assumptions, and instead continue to believe as I do that politicians and political decisions can and should be held easily accountable to the citizens, then you should vote NO on all four proposed Charter amendments and preserve our right to reasonable referendum, recall and initiative as originally envisioned by our community founders.
James Rickman
Los Alamos