Wednesday, December 16, 2009

There are exceptions to every rule; prudence is the ability to embrace the good ones

WPLN reports:

Council Member Mike Jameson agrees the city can’t conduct a poll on everything. But he argues the downtown convention center deserves extra input, calling it Nashville’s most important, and expensive, decision in the next decade.

“If there was ever any one issue that begged for an opinion poll, a referendum, some sort of survey, this is it.”

While I have been disposed to oppose popular referendum on singular budget issues in the past, I've never remotely advocated an absolute stand against the idea of referendums. Those who forced the referendum issue on Metro have a different agenda: they would cut off revenue streams to spite any services and programs.

Under most circumstances I would oppose a referendum to kill attempts to pay for police services, infrastructure maintenance, and programs that serve Nashvillians at many levels, but I also realize that we work with what we've got before us. If the referendum initiative can be turned to serve the common good by revealing actual public support or opposition to Nashville's largest capital project ever--dedicated to tourists and the businesses that serve tourists--then it is no self-contradiction to support holding that referendum.

And attempting to show contradiction between support for an election on the convention center and opposition to an election on English Only is just as short-sighted and lame. Passage of English Only would have been much more of a threat to local communities and our quality of life than expressing non-binding, but significant public opposition to a convention center would. The English Only referendum presented the worst face of referendum initiatives because it was an attempt to solve a problem that didn't exist based on anti-immigrant sentiment that would have generated more tension in our neighborhoods.

Opposing the English Only referendum cannot be remotely correlated to supporting a referendum on the convention center. English Only was about culture war; the convention center is about economics and civic life.

The same can be said of charges of contradiction between criticizing the cost of the English Only referendum and accepting the cost of a convention center referendum. I argued that Eric Crafton should be accountable for costing Metro taxpayers extra money to hold a referendum that was designed to make the jobs of able Metro employees harder and to drive cultural wedges between neighbors in Nashville.

The arcs of English Only and convention center criticism look nothing like one another. On the one hand, English Only had been Eric Crafton's baby from 2005 on. he proved himself willing to ignore public opposition and bolt over any obstacle and whip up a mobilized minority of voters to win. He should have counted the cost.

On the other hand, many of us with misgivings about the convention center believe that neither the Mayor nor the Council has made room for public feedback that could influence decisions on Music City Center. And yet, with the General Fund potentially obligated and $14 million out there hanging to be taken from other services, we're the major stakeholders in the project.

We've watched Metro indenture itself to two large budget-busting capital projects in the form of sports venues, and then come back later to say "we don't have a choice but continue to fund these back-breakers while other Metro services suffer." Bankrolling a third time does not make it charm. Even so, criticism of the convention was late and slow in developing, and it is not connected to personalities leading a reactionary faction of voters.

These initiatives to hold referendums couldn't be farther apart.

Thus, we agree with responsible critics like CM Mike Jameson: if there was ever a single cause to hold a referendum, building a new convention center, when expenses are a millstone for Metro in a sea of economic uncertainty, is a huge one.

1 comment:

  1. There are two ways to view this debacle. It's either been two years of a fully irresponsible daydream that, despite the severe economic changes that have affected every single household in this country, a plan developed years before and dependent on high-dollar, cross-country travel could still be viable. Or, it's been a exceptionally well-played game of public manipulation, committing the Council step by step to a massive expenditure of public funding which, if the example of every other city that's tried to fund a convention center this way is any indication, will suck dry the coffers of local public services to the benefit of a handful of developers.

    I remain, at heart, an optimist, and I believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that our leadership is trying to do the right thing. I fundamentally disagree with what they're doing, though, and I have not had the opportunity to express that disagreement in any public, binding way. When I cast my vote in the last Mayoral election, I supported a plan that depended on a context which no longer exists, and I voted for a candidate I believed to be smart enough to do the right thing for Nashville if the context changed. That vote does not mean that, today, I support the funneling of hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build a center than not one single private investor is willing to put his own money behind. Because I believe Dean is capable of doing good for my city, I do not want this to be the legacy he leaves behind.

    If there were public support for the convention center, we would not have had to spend $400,000 on an unethical campaign to develop it. This deserves a public referendum. The cost of that may be borne by public dollars. The responsibility for it lies solely with the leaders whose naivete (at best) or despotic disdain for their constituents (at worst) has dug us down this far.