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Council action and petition precursor are instructive

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By Richard Hannemann

By concentrating on the subject material, council once again chose to look at the proposal in a manner, which avoided directly dealing with the underlying issue. The subject matter of any ordinance initiative or referendum initiative is but the tip of the iceberg.  

The underlying issue of any citizen initiative invariably goes to a break-down in the social contract between government and the governed such that citizens find that their only recourse is to set aside the normal processes of representative government and re-establish the principle that ultimate authority for governance rests with, and derives from, the people.  A referendum initiative commonly referred to as simply “referendum,” which by its nature seeks to overturn a legislative action, is a direct challenge to the governing body.  An ordinance initiative, commonly referred to as simply an “initiative,” by its nature of seeking to implement policy which has been ignored by elected representatives, is a somewhat more indirect challenge to the governing body — though an ordinance initiative which places strictures on the actions of the elected representatives is certainly a direct challenge to the governing authority.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “It is the propensity of the functionaries of every government to gather unto themselves the rights and properties of their constituents …”  The citizen initiative is the means by which those constituents may counter that propensity. Jefferson also wrote that he believed every society should have a revolution every 200 years or so in order to correct the tendencies toward governmental abuses. Certainly, as a challenge to the governing authority, the citizen initiative can be seen as a form of that revolution and, as such, is an action upon which citizens are normally reluctant to embark. People would prefer to trust their government to govern wisely and well and are usually reasonably tolerant and patient of governmental missteps.  Still, “when in the course of human events …”

That the governing body and the power elite would attempt to deflect these attempts of the citizenry to re-assert its hegemony is understandable. They will make every effort, in whatever manner, to retain their power. The arguments will include those already given; that an avenue of public input exists, that the voters are not to be trusted to make the “right” decision, or that there is no legal basis for citizen action.  Indeed, the county attorney has broadly interpreted the case of Johnson v. The City of Alamogordo far beyond its parameters in order to make a case, which would scuttle the entire initiative process. The argument is untested in New Mexico courts, but, given that the right of initiative is a firmly established precedent in other states, it is unlikely that the argument would survive any direct challenge. Yet members of the council will cling to this untested interpretation as yet another way to protect their own position.

Such tactics only make matters worse. The governing body and power elite become further entrenched and divorced from the citizenry, which can only increase the citizens’ frustration.  “Throwing the bums out” by the normal procedure of regularly scheduled election is no longer seen as a viable alternative. Citizens are left with but two increasingly draconian options. The lesser of these two is the recall initiative by which the entirety of the elected representatives may be summarily dismissed. Yet this does not preclude their being replaced by others of like mind. Should this be the case then it is not unlikely that citizens will seek to disband the governing body entirely and replace it with a governmental form which citizens hope will be more responsive and responsible to the people in whom the ultimate authority of and for governance rests.

If the council does not take heed to the underlying point of direct citizen action, if the untested opinion of the county attorney is allowed to prevail, then resorting to the more draconian measures will be a matter not of “if” but of “when.”

 Can you spell “revolution?”

Richard Hannemann

Los Alamos

Richard Hannemann is a Republican candidate running for county council.