An oligarchy in Snowmass
Your editorial of Jan. 2 incorrectly implied that the citizens’ initiative in Snowmass Village (which may trigger a popular vote on Base Village) disrespects the value of “representative government.” And you assumed falsely that Snowmass has representative government to begin with.
Representative government isn’t simply about letting elected officials make decisions on behalf of those who elected them. It’s also about representatives acting within a system of robust checks and balances that limits authority. This is to reduce the possibility of bad decisions. That’s why, on a national level, we have three branches of government (not one), topped off by the Constitution. At a local level, we have to make due with the land-use code.
In Snowmass, there aren’t many checks and balances ” and therefore, currently, not true representative government.
First, there are only five elected officials deciding the fate of thousands of stakeholders. If anything, true representation entails a sizable legislative body where representatives disagree with each other and settle on a compromise. (That point was made about 200 years ago by James Madison, a framer of our Constitution and later our fourth president.)
These five people seem to have agreed with each other from the outset, at least with respect to Base Village. They’re an elected oligarchy with one viewpoint, yet opinion among voters seems to diverge widely.
Second, a representative government is usually held accountable to some kind of constitution. For Snowmass, that “constitution” is the land-use code. The existing code, however, has a fatal loophole: The council can simply ignore the code if it wants to. That makes the council unaccountable.
To be sure, the initiative doesn’t undermine representative government. It restores it ” by instating badly needed checks and balances. It closes the aforementioned loophole so that the council is actually held accountable to the land-use code. (If the council wants or needs to ignore the code beyond a defined margin, it still could with voter approval.) The initiative recognizes that, while on nearly all issues the council should decide as it always has, five representatives are simply too few to be trusted with absolute power to change the community radically.
Sometimes oligarchy must be balanced by a bit of direct democracy to achieve true representation.
Paul W. Benton
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