How should policy decisions be made?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 2, 2005

We’ve recently seen many significant public policy decisions made and others proposed by city staff, without a clear understanding of how such issues are framed or come about.

In our representative democracy, we elect council members to make local policy decisions for us and supposedly hold them accountable for the decisions they inflict upon us at the polls.

In reality much of the public policy we suffer is formulated by city staff and sold to council-members for objectives that may not hold the best interests of the citizens.

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This has clearly been seen with the many controversial decisions made recently, but most especially in the last few years here in Suffolk.

As an example, during the recent city council meeting held on Feb. 16, a request was made by the vice-mayor that a referendum be held to measure by a vote of the electorate, what should be done concerning the proposed take over of roads in the old Nansemond County from VDOT.

It was quickly pointed out that at present, there is no defined methodology or authority for such a referendum in our city charter. While it is well known that as a Dillon Rule state, the Virginia legislature would have to approve such a referendum process, it is also clear that they would approve if asked.

This omission should be corrected as it was some time ago in our neighboring communities.

In Chesapeake, a city charter change was done several years ago to allow for such referendum authority, at the urging of the electorate.

Without such a request this effort will most likely not happen, as the present city management clearly does not wish to be encumbered by such &uot;political distractions&uot; that might usurp their prerogative.

This thinking was clearly seen in the comments that were made by Councilman Charles Brown, who stated that he did not believe such a process was needed, &uot;because the seven members of council are the referendum.&uot;

Such thinking is not only wrong, it negates the real and necessary benefits that such referendum processes lend to, specifically the legitimization of the actions of the governing body.

Too many controversial issues have been given the pass by our council, after hearing only the urgings of the city staff and little comment from the electorate.

Without full disclosure and public policy commentary, such processes will fail to provide all of the facts and will raise the ire of the voters.

The real benefits of the process are that with more advice from the electorate by referendum, it will lead to consensus and acceptance of city policy by the governed.

In a modern representative democracy with widely available forms of media, it is important that the governing body sample from time to time the thinking of those governed.

While city management might find such a process less appealing and inefficient in their perspective, much can be gained by encouraging more involvement by the electorate.

Our population has grown in both sophistication and outlook in how we should be governed.

It is evident that when more interest shown by the governing body in the thinking of the governed, the people are clearly more comfortable with the decisions that are made in city hall.

This insight could directly be linked to some of the projects like; the Hotel/Marina project, the UDO, the Obici property purchase, and other significant governmental policy objectives that are vast in both nature and cost.

If a referendum had been held concerning the Hotel/Marina project and it was supported by a reasonable consensus, much of the negative commentary we hear could be deflected by such acclimation.

By the same notion, it might also have been clear that such a project should never have been approved.

Either way we all would have been more comfortable with the process, rather than what we have now.

While it is clear that the &uot;mob&uot; can not rule on every governmental decision, there is much to be gained by the legitimate role of advice and consent of the governed.

A governing body can gain a clearer understanding of the community, if they take the position that the electorate can think for itself.

To arrogantly assume that only our representative body and city staff can choose the right path is both ludicrous and inane. It is quite appropriate to ask the advice and commentary of the electorate at large from time to time, especially when policy is long-range and controversial in nature.

As such, it is important that the citizens of Suffolk press hard for a city charter change for the right to &uot;Advisory Referendum.&uot;

We are not &uot;the citizens of any one council member,&uot; the council members are our representatives and should seek our consent, especially for controversial, long-range, and costly policies.

The proposal to take over road maintenance from VDOT is a decision that is the poster-child for advisory referendum in Suffolk.

Referendum is a prime tool for a mature representative democracy and is both effective and necessary as the community grapples with difficult and politically sensitive proposals.

In the next legislative package sent to our representative in Richmond, we need to request that they sponsor a change to our city charter, to allow for such referendum.

Our elected representative can do a better job if they hear more from the electorate and less from the city staff on such matters and referendum can do just that…

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at