Reno City Councilmember David Aiazzi wants city residents to have to vote on whether to reduce Reno fire department crews from four- to three-person crews.
This is a foolish idea. We’re familiar—too familiar—with the concept of public officials passing the buck to voters on hot political issues. The Reno council back in the 1970s put a measure dealing with adult bookstores on the ballot, and the Nevada Legislature put the Equal Rights Amendment on the ballot in 1978. In some other states this kind of thing has happened even more often.
We live in a representative democracy. We elect people to make decisions, not avoid them. We expect those officials to steep themselves in the many, many public policy topics and issues they face so they can make sound decisions. It’s not something that members of the public can do.
We need only look across the border to California to see the consequences of direct democracy. Since 1910, Californians have been expected to inform themselves on hundreds of issues, arcane and otherwise—professional chiropractic rules, maintenance of the state capitol grounds, rent control, oil profits, disaster assistance, beverage containers, textbooks, whether governments can deposit money in credit unions as well as banks, usury, adult materials.
In the single year of 1986, for instance, Californians were asked to vote on 24 different complicated topics. One ballot measure decided whether to keep toxic substances that cause cancer and birth defects out of consumer products and water. That was an issue that needed serious study by public officials of how high the risk was in different products and whether that risk justified the cost. Californians were also asked to decide whether Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome should be placed on a list of communicable diseases. That is clearly a health issue that should be determined after consultation with medical experts, not thrown out as an anti-gay appeal to prejudice by a bigoted state senator, which was the case.
Even when ballot measures are non-binding, this kind of thing has led to bad decisions and poor governance.
It is not the job of our elected officials to avoid tough, no-win decisions and unpopular choices by turning them back to the voters. It is their job to make hard choices and then be held accountable.
The issue of whether to reduce Reno fire crews, which can affect whether some fire stations stay open, should be made by officials familiar with the details. To put public safety up for a popular vote is reckless nonsense.