Attendance no basis for decision

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 8, 2005

A public meeting will be held tonight at 7 at Lakeland High School so that citizens can learn about the concept of direct election of the mayor. This is the second such meeting, the first being sparsely attended.

Mayor Bobby Ralph said after the first meeting and reiterated in a story in Sunday’s News-Herald, that the city council will use attendance at this meeting as a barometer of sorts on whether this is something they would like to pursue.

Basically, if no more people turn out tonight than did the first time, we’re washing our hands of this.

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Currently, city council representatives meet among themselves and select a mayor to handle the largely ceremonial duties that go along with being the mayor. Under a direct election system, the mayor would be elected at large, just like the sheriff, treasurer, commonwealth’s attorney, commissioner of the revenue, etc.

Making such a change makes sense. The mayor should put the best interests of the entire city ahead of those of any particular borough, even the one he represents. That creates a problem under the current system. A mayor could wind up short changing the very people who elected him in favor of doing the greater good for the city.

But whether or not we should switch to direct election of the mayor is not the immediate issue. That should be left up to the voters. What we have difficulty with is basing such a momentous decision on how many people show up for a meeting. It’s not the right way to go about it.

We wish everyone was concerned enough about the state of our democracy to show up for a meeting, but that’s not the America we live in today.

Americans are working longer hours than ever. It takes two jobs in most households to even approach what we used to consider a middle class lifestyle. What little spare time we have is spent transporting kids to and from events or watching trashy reality television programs or trying to stay abreast of what Paris Hilton is doing. There is little time or interest in taking three hours plus out of your evening to fight traffic and listen to a couple eggheads drone on about some academic issue.

The point is that while it’s great that the city has provided citizens with this opportunity to learn about this issue and be heard on it, that’s all it is. City council members need to show leadership and determine whether a directly elected mayor is something they want to pursue. Dropping it over meeting attendance is just an effort to sweep it under the rug and avoid having to deal with it.

But if actually making a decision is too great a risk, there’s no reason an advisory referendum could not be held as early as the next election and let people have an opportunity to voice their opinion at the polls. The vote would be nonbinding, but at least it would show where people really stand.