Cost of referendum an investment in democracy

Posted on Feb. 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Feb. 20, 2013 at 5:27 p.m.

The Goshen City Council approved a referendum on a new community center. Now Council President Jim McKee wants someone else to pick up the tab for the vote — either Goshen Community Center Inc. or one of its benefactors.

That would be a mistake.

Councilors approved a public vote on the $36.6 million project earlier this year, putting it on the May ballot. They later moved the referendum to November.

Organizers estimate that the election will cost $58,000. McKee, who opposed the initiative, introduced a resolution Tuesday calling on GCC Inc. to repay Goshen for the costs of referendum.

McKee stressed that the resolution did not require GCC Inc. to reimburse the city, and no one was trying to punish supporters.

“We’re not mad at anybody, we’re not trying to retaliate or anything like that,” McKee said. “If there’s someone standing ready that would help the group out in their purpose, I think that would be a good thing.”

Some councilors argued that Bruce Stahly, director of the community center project, had promised that the cost of a special election would be covered by an anonymous supporter. Others said no, Stahly only suggested that as a possibility if cost was a deal-breaker for council approval of a referendum.

Stahly wasn’t there Tuesday to clarify what he’d said, so the council eventually agreed to table the discussion. But not before one councilor, Jeremy Stutsman, expressed concern that the resolution could establish a precedent for the next group that sought a referendum.

“It’s almost like they’re buying our ‘yes’ votes,” Stutsman said.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Asking groups or individuals to underwrite special elections subverts the democratic process.

A city council should weigh the merits of a referendum on its merits, not on a group’s ability to pay for it. And so should the voters.

Any group or individual who can sponsor an election buys public favor and influences the vote. Turning to anonymous donors to underwrite elections is even worse because it moves popular government into the shadows; in the end, voters have no idea who’s supporting an initiative and how it’s being bankrolled.

If a city council agrees that it is in the people’s best interest to hold a referendum, then it’s up to the city to pick up the tab — with the people’s money.

That isn’t a hardship on taxpayers. To the contrary.

It’s an investment in democracy.


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