Try old-fashioned government

The Augusta City Council faces a tough vote this evening. Councilors will consider an order to restore two-way traffic to a section of Water Street that has featured a one-way pattern since 1945.

The change has widespread support from downtown business owners and residents, who believe it will provide a better atmosphere for pedestrians as they shop, dine and go about their business downtown, identified as the once-and-future hub of the capital city. Moving cars through downtown, in their view, should take second place to the needs of people outside their vehicles.

City officials have identified changes needed: some one-time costs, such as reprogramming traffic lights; some continuing, such as additional expenses for snowplowing. These don’t appear to be deal-breakers.

There’s also opposition to the two-way plan, as could be expected when people’s daily lives are affected. The merits of these views are something councilors must take into account, and decide what weight to give.

Half the eight-member council has supported the plan, by sponsoring the order, while the other four members haven’t taken a public position. It should be an interesting debate.

One suggestion that’s been aired recently — putting the plan out to a referendum vote — should, however, be firmly rejected.

Whenever there’s controversy over a legislative bill, order — or a traffic pattern — there’s a tendency for those not prevailing to take their case to a different level. Sometimes, it’s justified. That’s why courts review the constitutionality of acts of Congress and state legislatures.

Lately, however, the justifications have often been flimsy or non-existent. Endless appeals by the LePage administration of the federal guarantee of expanded Medicaid funding, despite enactment of a law by the voters and funding by the Legislature, would be an example.

In Waterville, the mayor has repeatedly drawn lines in the sand concerning the city budget without offering a plausible means to reach his target, leaving this year’s spending levels still unresolved, with petitions for a budget referendum circulating.

Outright obstructionism has become far too common, from a U.S. Senate majority leader refusing to allow hearings so senators could vote yea or nay on a Supreme Court nominee, to one caucus in Maine’s Legislature shutting down state government and repeatedly postponing final adjournment of this year’s “short” session because of a shifting set of demands. It’s undemocratic, unjust, and thwarts the very means we’ve chosen to govern ourselves.

Frustration at such voter-be-damned tactics is understandable. Progressive forces, believing their elected representatives couldn’t deliver what was needed, used Maine’s voter-friendly citizen initiative process to turn the tide; in New England, only Massachusetts also permits such referendums, but only after a three-year wait.

Yet the strategy failed to take into account that the Legislature still has final say over initiated legislation, whether to amend or – lately – block such legislation entirely. Obstructionists can still obstruct.

And in fairness, some referendum questions were flawed, either constitutionally — as with ranked choice voting — or required major amendment, as with marijuana legalization. A huge amount of legislative time was spent battling over referendum questions in 2017, with the result that not much else of substance got done.

A referendum on Water Street traffic in Augusta wouldn’t have similar complexities, but it’s still not a good idea. Without eliminating representative government entirely and going to direct democracy — something hardly anyone is suggesting — we need to do what we can to make the process work.

This means that we all need to be working to ensure those who represent our views — at the town or city council, the Legislature, and in Congress — are the ones who are elected. We should insist they stay at the table as long as necessary, but also trust them to get the job done.

While this represents the genius of the American system — still unsurpassed at containing power and providing everyone a voice — it also accounts for its frustrations.

Still, those who are dissatisfied with government must consider whether gathering referendum signatures, filing lawsuits and conducting protests are the best use of the abundant political energy we now see across the state. Working on campaigns, not just voting, could be the answer, since — eventually — even obstructionists know they can be turned out of office.

Tonight at the Augusta City Council, it’s decision time. Not everyone will like the outcome, but everyone should agree to accept the results: for a trial run, if affirmative, or a pause to reconsider, if negative.

Using government the old-fashioned way is still our best hope if divisions are eventually to be overcome, as they’ve always been before. And in terms of enduring outcomes, it’s really our only choice.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. His new book is “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine.” He lives in West Gardiner, and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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