My Two Cents: Referendums: When is it our turn to decide?

Photo courtesy Katy June-Friesen.
BY RON PEDONE —

BY RON PEDONE —

Prior to January 5, 2015* the Hyattsville city council should make a couple of straightforward, uncomplicated decisions. One would be to permit the voting public to decide if they want to amend the city’s charter to lower the minimum voting age to 16. The other would be to allow voters to decide if they support collective bargaining for sworn officers in Hyattsville.

Both of these issues, I believe, are too important to leave solely to the discretion of the city council and mayor. Rather, both should be decided by referendum. Both should be on the upcoming May 2015 ballot for voters to decide.

For many of us the voting age issue is, fairly clear. As some would say, “it’s a no brainer.” That is, we, the voters, should decide. With respect to recognizing police unions should we, and not the city council, again have the final say? I think the answer is yes; let me elaborate why.**

The decision whether or not to recognize a police union (and possibly other city employee unions) is critically significant because, at the very least, its outcome will have long lasting effects on future city spending, hiring practices, and tax rate decisions. Also, the decision most likely will have an impact on the structure and dynamics of city operations. And, it probably will change the “small-town-like” ambiance and culture many of us associate with the City of Hyattsville.

Given these factors, it reasonable to conclude that any decision on collective bargaining agreements should reside with the voting public and not be ceded to the city council. It’s too important a decision and should reflect the will of the entire Hyattsville community. Knowing the will of the entire community is best achieved by holding a city-wide referendum. Allow the voters—not just the council—to decide if they do or do not want the city to recognize and engage in collective bargaining with a police union (or any other city union).

In rare instances, I believe, certain decisions should not be the sole prerogative of elected officials. A decision on collective bargaining is one of those exceptional instances. Any decision on this issue should be the privilege or right of city voters–not simply of the council. Hyattsville has a talented, dedicated, and highly competent council who worked hard to be elected and who represents us well. Unfortunately, though, it really does not speak for us. In truth it can’t, sadly, because of past (regrettably low voter turnout) election results. It’s difficult to accept or acknowledge that a council member who was elected with such a small percentage of eligible Ward voters can adequately or confidently speak for the majority of his/her constituency.

Specifically, the current mayor was elected by eight percent of the city’s eligible voters; Ward One members were elected, respectively, by roughly five percent and seven percent of Ward voters; Ward Two by 11 percent and 12 percent; Ward Three by 12 percent and five percent; Ward Four by six percent and four percent; and Ward Five by around six percent and four percent. In view of these wretchedly low voter turnout rates, it’s hard to imagine how the voice of most eligible voters across the city can be expressed through the council. With respect to the police union issue, let’s find out—through a city-wide referendum—where city voters stand on the city recognizing such a union. (Obviously, the voting outcome on a referendum may be no better than election outcomes but that’s not really germane in this instance. Rather, the point is to give every voter the chance to say “yea” or “nay” on unionizing the police.)

The significance of the union debate cannot be over stated. I’m convinced any final decision on a police union or any other city union will have enduring and profound consequences for the city workforce as well as for city taxpayers and residents. It will be a truly transformative policy decision. Accordingly, it should reflect what the voting public wants and not solely what the council wants. The union issue is a “big deal” issue. All of us have a stake in its outcome, and all of us should be the ones to have the final say.

Ron Pedone is currently the president of the University Hills Area Civic Association and a long time resident of Hyattsville.  The views expressed are his and they do not necessarily reflect or represent the position of the Civic Association.

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* To be placed on the May 2015 ballot, the Council must make a decision regarding the use of referendums by early January to abide by the 120-days ballot referendum requirement.

** The core role of the Council on the issue of recognizing collective bargaining for Hyattsville sworn police officers should be to lay out the pros and cons and conduct debates on these pros and cons in a series of public forums and meetings. In addition, the Council should communicate through print and non-print media detailed information on the police union issue so that the voters can make an informed decision. In a word, the primary role of the Council should be to educate Hyattsville voters — not to decide for them.

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