Representative Democracy or Indolent Government?

Guest Correspondence

Budgeting is the most important duty of a local legislative body. Local commissions in the city and county spend months on budgets. They give their administrators priorities, they hear from different departments in various meetings, which are hours long, and they plan. Many times, they plan five years out.

This is what they are elected to do, to get into the minutia and use their understanding of the needs of the community to make budget decisions. Commissioners get to look at it from the 100,000-foot level and the one-millimeter level, as they should. It is representative democracy at its best.

A regular citizen who elects them cannot, and should not, be expected to understand each aspect and rule of budgeting. Nor should important budget decisions about only one aspect of an overall budget be put on these citizens. They don’t have the luxury of having one-on-ones with staff and access and time to understand how it all fits together.

That is why I am troubled by the recent survey put out by the County Commission on mental health.

Clearly County Commissioners think this is important or they wouldn’t waste staff time on this, or our time for that matter. Clearly they see a need. Clearly they think it needs more money, why would they be asking if they didn’t?

But if they have no problem asking about this aspect of the budget, why wouldn’t they just put their entire budget out for a survey? The thought is ridiculous, as is this survey. We are not a direct democracy by design. Nothing would get done.

The Commission will point to a Florida Statute that requires this taxing district issue go out to the voters.

The truth is the Commission does not need a taxing district to make funding decisions about mental health. On their own, they can dedicate a portion of the millage to mental health. On their own, they can increase the millage, and on their own they can create a mechanism to administrate mental health. 

However, it requires fortitude to make a decision to do that, or not to do that, and it requires a plan one way or the other. It requires work and it requires upending the current system, upon which many local non-profits depend.

But why take responsibility for that when you can put a sliver of a budget item out there for a survey or vote and then point at the electorate for whatever decision is made, as opposed to taking on the responsibility yourself? You know, the representative democracy part of the job?

None of us elect commissioners to make government indolent. We elect commissioners to represent us, to do a job, to make tough decisions.

Prioritization of the budget is inherently the job of the commission. It is the way they set policy. It is the way they point the government in the direction they want it to go. It should have a community vision in mind and it should be formed as a result of the close contact and understanding the commission has with the community. 

Are we going to see a clear planned vision with a prioritized budget? Or are we going to see a political decision designed to give the commission cover? We are about to find out.

Christine Robinson is executive director for The Argus Foundation.

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