Real-estate mogul and civic activist Malin Burnham really stuck his foot in it last week when he said 99 percent of the electorate wouldn't understand the issues surrounding a possible vote on a new city hall. A supporter of a new civic center, he foolishly gift-wrapped a campaign talking point for those opposed to it that might go a little something like this: The people who want to waste your money on a new Taj Mahal for self-serving politicians and overpaid bureaucrats think you're an idiot.
But in his clumsy way, Burnham raised a terribly important civics question: Which issues should be solved by the voters, and which should be solved by the elected representatives we put in office?
Before I go any further, it's full-disclosure time. I have a close personal relationship with someone involved in the effort to redevelop City Hall. Anything I say about the project should be read with that in mind; while I believe my opinion remains consistent with the one I had before the relationship began (I like the idea of a new center, but I dislike the location and the conceptual design) and is based on facts, such conflicts can work in subconscious ways. For the most part, I've tried to stay out of the fray when it comes to this matter (Eric Wolff's reporting on the subject was all his own), but in light of the flack Burnham's drawn, I simply can't resist commenting on his ill-advised remarks.
First, Burnham was likely exaggerating when he said 99 percent of voters wouldn't comprehend the City Hall issue. What I think he meant to say is that many voters won't be aware of the extensive analysis of the project's financing, and a surface-level awareness of the issue will leave them susceptible to the opposition's grossly simplistic rhetoric.
Burnham's ham-handed statement has invited a flurry of observers to label him and anyone who dares to defend his sentiment as elitists who think the average citizen is a brainless bumpkin. That's too bad because it obscures an interesting question: Shouldn't we leave a decision like this to the people we elect—and pay—to follow the issue down to the finest detail? If not, why do we bother with representative democracy?
The answer, of course, is that it's infeasible to hold a public vote on every decision big and small. That's why we elect representatives, and if we don't like how they represent us, we can replace them with other people—theoretically, of course. But given that there's a law on the books requiring San Diegans to vote on anything that would result in private financial gain exceeding a certain percentage of the city's general fund, we obviously don't trust our elected officials when a lot of taxpayer money is at stake.
I believe the reason for that is found in our system of private political campaign financing: We allow people who stand to make or lose money to contribute to campaigns, and though we've tried to limit direct contributions, those people are still allowed to hold fund-raisers and bundle dozens or hundreds of small donations and make sure the candidate knows who's responsible for the total. The public vote is a safeguard.
But a public vote is another opportunity for money to distort and distract. Both sides need money to wage their campaigns, and that money usually buys simplistic, easy-to-digest sound bites aimed at the lowest common denominator that are anathema to rational public policymaking.
The City Hall decision won't exactly be rocket science, but it will be more complicated than simply asking whether or not we should build an expensive new building in an era of draconian budget cuts. People will have to understand short-term pain for potential long-term gain because construction costs will be offset by savings in office-lease payments. People will also have to understand the physical condition of the current civic center and the realities of the Downtown office-space market.
I can't know whether or not I support the project, because a specific proposal has yet to be developed. We have no idea what it'll look like, how much it will cost or how much it will save. Either way, because of what's at stake, I'd just as soon leave the decision up to the people who are paid to read all the reports, sit through the meetings and listen to the testimony.
If that makes me an elitist, so be it.
What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like your online comment to be considered for publication in our print edition? Include your true full name and neighborhood of residence.