Walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin apparently responded to an inquiry about the kind of government his fellow delegates had adopted, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
I won’t delve here into the risk of our country pulling too far from its moorings that it will fall under the spell of a monarchy. Instead, as our community confronts the specter of two separate petitions that seek to overturn the rulings of our elected leadership, I’m reminded of the principles of representative democracy that characterize a “republic” . . . and wonder if we can keep it.
It was the genius of our founding fathers that we should be governed by representatives who are elected through a democratic vote of their constituents. There are many reasons why we chose that form of government, but the fundamental reason is practicality. In the earliest days, it wasn’t physically feasible for citizens to gather for votes on issues impacting civic life. In today’s more complicated world, it may be more feasible to vote, but it’s infeasible for our citizens to effectively pass judgment on every decision a government needs to make for our common welfare.
Take, for example, the masking policies of the Boulder Valley School District. I have my own thoughts on when it would be appropriate to wear a face mask to protect myself and others from COVID-19. I probably take more risk than my mother would prefer, but then again, I also give reasonable deference to our public health authorities. They are experts in communicable diseases, they care about protecting our public health, and I believe they are making every effort to balance their protective measures against other economic and social values. It also seems reasonable to me that the Boulder Valley School District Board would apply a similar degree of deference in the approach to masking rules for their students.
Apparently, there are some parents who believe they know better. They have their own observations, values, even evidence that suggests the school district’s masking policies are too restrictive. I won’t begin to argue with them here. Where I will draw the line is in the step these anti-mask advocates are taking to airing their grievances: soliciting signatures for a petition that seeks to recall three board members who voted to approve the masking order.
I say, decline to sign!
Our schools are already operating under tight fiscal conditions. We can make better use of the $650,000 or more it costs to run a special recall election. It’s the principle of the matter that most concerns me. I don’t claim to be an expert in how a COVID virus propagates, nor do I believe the recall petitioners hold a font of wisdom that exceeds the judgment of our public health authorities and the elected representatives who choose to follow their guidance.
Similarly, our Boulder City Council recently made a decision to annex the CU South property. This was a hard-fought battle, over many years, between those who wanted to preserve the property as open space and those who placed a priority on immediate use of the site for flood mitigation. Now, after a vote of 6-1 by the city council in favor of the annexation, there is a group circulating petitions for an election to overturn that decision.
I say, decline to sign!
I’m no flood control expert. I know some of the folks seeking to relitigate the annexation agreement with the University of Colorado claim that mantel, but I also know there are plenty of floodplain engineering professionals within city government and their paid consultants who believe the council made the right technical decision. This is on top of the carefully negotiated terms of the settlement agreement that our elected representatives believe are just about as good as we could possibly secure.
My point: We are fortunate to live in a republic where we rely on our elected representatives to make carefully considered decisions in our best interest, often on topics that are far beyond our capacity to absorb while conducting our own business and living our busy lives. Recalls and referendums, while appropriate to curb egregious abuses, are ripe for the manipulation of public passion that is untethered from thoughtful analysis and the weight of legitimate competing interests. And of course, if we don’t agree with the decisions of our elected representatives, there’s always the next election. For now . . . I choose to keep that republic.
John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at 303-442-1044, ext 110 or email@example.com.