Wanted: Leadership

Wanted: Leadership
Search the archives of the Plain Talk in recent years, and you'll find commentary voicing our strong support for the initiative and referendum process.

After all, it seems to be the thing to do here in South Dakota, a place where, if we feel the government has done us wrong, we can at least make an attempt to fix that at the ballot box.

In South Dakota, citizens may propose ordinances and resolutions for municipal governments if they file petitions that contain signatures of at least 5 percent of the registered voters in the municipality.


This November, arrive at your polling place early. The ballot is going to be chock-full of questions for you decide.

It will include such issues as marriage, abortion, real property assessment, judicial accountability, legislative pay, cigarette taxes and when the first day of public school should begin in the state.

Vermillion citizens have an additional question to decide: the fate of Crawford Road. And, as of this Monday, a new twist has been added. Citizens can vote yes or no to develop the road, thanks to an initiative filed by citizens last spring.

Or, it appears, they can vote yes or no on developing the area into a bike trail and nature preserve, thanks to a conflicting initiative filed July 24 and approved at Monday's Vermillion City Council meeting. And, who knows. Maybe they can vote twice.

The result: a simple yes or no decision on Crawford Road has suddenly become complex.

Let's suppose (and we believe there's a good chance this could happen) that more people vote yes than no for both issues. It won't determine whether citizens truly want the street developed, or truly want a bike path and nature preserve in the area.

It will, in fact, not determine anything, meaning the courts will be left to sort out an issue that was supposed to be decided by the public.

Again, we are left with a significant problem because of the failure of Mayor Dan Christopherson and our city council to lead.

Alderman Mary Edelen is right. The initiative is " sacred ground" in South Dakota. But she needed to extend that idea a bit further and discuss publicly the effect that the second "Crawford Woods" initiative would have on the one already filed, calling on voters to decide whether or not to build the street.

We're a bit disappointed that the city council still doesn't seem to grasp the fact that the initiative lacks the flexibility of the legislative process. Debate, deliberation and compromise are noticeably absent from the initiative process.

Whether you're a fan of the initiative process or a foe, you have to admit that it's here to stay, and the popularity it enjoyed in the 1990s isn't likely to wane in the near future. The questions to consider are how to ensure the process remains transparent, so that voters can make informed decisions.

We could have used more discussion both this spring and Monday night about the actual effect both initiatives would have on the city's future.

Frankly, the predominant action of the city council Monday was its failure to do just that � act. In this unique situation, where it faced having to do something with not one but two conflicting initiatives, the effect was chilling.

Threatened with the prospects of taking the proper course and rejecting the second initiative, aldermen acted like deer in the headlights and chose to dump both issues on the voters. The council ends up either frozen in fear, or, cynically, have learned to use the process.

In the meantime, those who filed the initial petition calling for an initiative on the road construction thought their action would serve as a check on an institution of representative democracy, the city council.

We don't believe they ever thought the Crawford Road initiative would serve as a substitute for the city council.

But in Vermillion, it seems, the traditional way of correcting government when it's done something wrong has been flipped on its head.

Seeking city office, it appears, may be the only route available to local citizens who seek to reform our city government.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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