Choice too important to be offered only at whim of politicians

Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2001

In the end, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly did the right thing by approving a ballot question that will give voters the choice of a nine- or 13-member assembly.

The issue, however, was sidetracked by a proposal that would have asked voters if they favor nine single-member districts. That plan, which was discussed, but not formally introduced, rightfully raised some consternation for several reasons.

First, a reapportionment committee, which included three assembly members, has been working since May 11. It came up with four plans for assembly consideration: a seven-, nine-, 11- and 13-member assembly. The committee recommended two of the plans -- which two were the assembly's choice -- be placed before voters in the Oct. 2 election.

There was no good reason to disregard the committee's recommendation.

Second, while the assembly is not under any legal obligation to accept any advisory panel's recommendation, it discourages participation in the public process when it does so. Why would anyone want to make a significant investment of time and energy on a community issue, only to see the work ignored? Does that mean the assembly must rubber stamp every advisory panel decision to come down the pike? No. However, there should be a compelling reason to go in a different direction. In this case, there was no such reason.

Elected officials who wring their hands over what seems to be public apathy often need to look no further than their own actions to understand why people aren't more involved.

Third, a look at reapportionment is mandated every 10 years, after the census. The process offers the opportunity for all residents to look at how effective their borough representation is. During the last process voters approved reducing the then 16-member assembly to nine members. It makes sense now to re-examine the action.

The discussion opens the door to countless questions. Is a smaller assembly more efficient? Does a larger assembly mean fewer issues are likely to be fast-tracked or does it translate into unwieldy government? What number offers the best representation of the borough's diverse neighborhoods? Looking back over the past decade, has a smaller assembly translated into smaller government? Is a smaller assembly cheaper? Has a smaller assembly been able to accomplish more than a larger one?

That kind of discussion is healthy for the community. Every 10 years is not too often to revisit the issue. Having specific numbers of assembly districts before voters makes the discussion more concrete. Otherwise, it's like asking: Is the current system working? The answer, of course, is yes. Could it work better with 13? Maybe. The assembly loses nothing by letting voters choose.

Finally, those who proposed a simple yes or no vote to a nine-member assembly may have had the best of intentions, including: The proposal is simpler. There's no reason to change the current setup. They're looking at the big picture, wanting assembly districts to fall within state districts as closely as possible so there's as little confusion as possible among voters. They have more knowledge about the issue than the reapportionment committee and the public. They're just trying to be efficient. Their constituents tell them they don't want more government. No one cares about reapportionment; the status quo is working. There was no intent to circumvent the public process; their proposal was merely a substitute for the ordinance which eventually passed.

All of that is well and good, but it misses the point. Assembly members need to view their actions in the light of the audience's eyes. It's a perception vs. reality problem. The reality may be those assembly members have the best interests of the public in mind. The perception, however, is that they are telling the public what's best. Period. It comes off as arrogant and disrespectful. It's what people dislike most about politicians. Elected officials take a dangerous path when they start believing their knowledge makes them more capable of making a wise decision than the people who put them in office.

The reapportionment question is an important one. It's about far more than numbers of assembly districts or boundaries. It's about philosophy of government. It's about what best serves the people.

Let those debates begin.

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