Decisions are not polls
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:48 PM
"Wednesday in this column, we waxed on the public decision-making process as a dynamic between competing goods - forests vs. ball fields, better traffic with no more roads, on and on.Today, prompted by several recent letters and comments we've heard at city council meetings, a few corollary thoughts are perhaps in order. Specifically, we would ask:Where did some islanders get the notion that elected officials are always beholden to whims of the majority?If most residents want something - or don't - they reason, the council should make its decisions accordingly. They cite this founding father or that - of the people, by the people, for the people - or misapply such bromides as taxation without representation.We suspect the catalyst has been the recent decision to put a roundabout on High School Road (arguably a measure of how little Bainbridge Islanders really have to complain about), despite apparent public preference for a traffic signal. Leaving aside the merits of the decision and the fact that most public comment will invariably be negative, naysayers buttress their reproof of the council through the creation of a phantom public - an illusory consensus determined by how many letters to the editor weigh in on one side of an issue or the other. Indeed, such a view consigns the council - and by extension, the park and school boards, and the fire commission - to the role of weathervane, and demotes the difference between right and wrong to a matter of public opinion.We can think of plenty of examples where the council bowed to pressure from constituents - listened to the public, as some would have it - and wound up making poor or indefensible decisions. In 1994, faced with a locally unpopular proposal for a cell-phone tower on High School Road, a majority of council members used a flimsy interpretation of the zoning code to vote the project down. As one council member of the day confessed, You decide how you want to vote, then figure out how to justify it. The city was promptly sued and lost, and up went the tower. The courts saw through the council's ruse, and determined correctly that public sentiment doesn't trump the law.Nor must sentiment prevail in cases where simple preference, rather than matters of law, are at issue. In the question of roundabout vs. signal, the council chose to be swayed by studies touting the safety record of the former, rather than a preponderance of anecdotes to the contrary.How dare they? Well, we would note that James Madison - who in his day gave at least some thought to issues of governance - cautioned not just against the cabals of a few, but against the confusion of the multitude.To this, we would add: Heed the will of the voters, or we'll throw you out is a meaningless threat, precisely because of its obviousness. That's how the system is supposed to work. If you want redress at the polls, have at it. Pray in the meantime that your elected officials give all facts and opinions fair consideration, and make the best-reasoned decisions they can. But don't expect them to decide issues by polling. They are charged not with making the popular decision, but the right one. "