The people have spoken; now let them be heard

Monday, August 3, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Seven weeks ago, I reluctantly stuck a fork in Broadway Commons. As far as I was concerned, it was done for. Over. Kaput.

The new Reds ballpark was going on the riverfront, and that was that.

Seems I was a little premature.

Since then, Broadway supporters have breathed new life into their cause. They distributed petitions to put the issue on the November ballot. They gathered 44,562 signatures, only needing 26,800 valid ones to bring the issue before voters.

Sometime this week the Board of Elections will know exactly how many signatures are on the up and up. So far, they're being validated at the rate of 75 percent. If the petitions pass inspection, voters will be asked to create a charter requiring the county to build the new Reds' home on Broadway Commons.

So the Commons' new lease on life will last at least until the November elections. No matter what happens then, the people will have spoken. The democratic process lives.

And, I'm glad about this turn of events for two reasons.

One: Despite the signed agreement to put the stadium on the river, I'm still a Broadway Commons man. An old-style Reds park in a neighborhood with character, in a place that could spark downtown development, sounds good to me. Leave the riverfront open for a park.

Two: The events of the last couple of weeks go beyond the issue of the stadium's location. The ballot initiative has been an exercise in reasserting the power of the people.

Besides posing the question, "Should the Reds play on Broadway?" the issue asks voters: To what extent do you want a say in how and where your tax dollars are spent?

Don't forget who's paying for this ballpark. The Reds' stadium package could wind up costing $297 million. The team's contribution amounts to $30 million. The rest will be paid for by us taxpayers.

Too many cooks

A number of people have attacked this ballot initiative. They say putting a county government decision up for a vote, in effect, turns the county into a charter form of government. (That means the county can make laws but must be more open to citizen input and review.)

Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus calls this a "giant step backward" for county government. He wants elected officials to govern as they see fit. He's worried this one ballot initiative will spawn many more and put county government up for a vote every week.

This would interfere with the way elected officials run the county. Mr. Bedinghaus warned me that progress would grind to a halt if commissioners had to worry that no matter what they did, they could be second-guessed at the ballot box.

Then he threw a scare into me. He predicted the county would turn into a do-nothing debating society, just like Cincinnati's city council.

"Remember," he said, "it's easy to get 26,800 people in the county to sign a petition."

Since Mr. Bedinghaus is not the most unbiased of observers on this matter, I sought the opinion of Professor James A. Stever. He's the head of the University of Cincinnati's political science department and author of the book, Diversity and Order in State and Local Politics. He shares the commissioner's concerns about a flurry of ballot initiatives.

"History shows that the charter system can rig the political process," he said. He sees the Broadway Commons issue as "an open invitation to chaos."

Vote 'yes'

After listening to the commissioner and the professor, I still haven't changed my mind.

The opportunity for citizen participation in government is worth the risk. Less citizen participation worries me far more. For many years, voters have been feeling increasingly alienated from the democratic process. They believe they have no say in government. They think: My vote doesn't count. Politicians are going to do what they want no matter what the people say.

This is a chance to be heard. And the people have exercised their right to be heard.

I say let the debate begin again.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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