Cook: With enemies like this, who needs government?

Cook: With enemies like this, who needs government?

August 29th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

At some point, it gets lost. We stop remembering and begin to forget.

Maybe it's the hard-to-understand legal language, with all the whereases and whereupons that can confuse and choke the life out of things like a boa constrictor.

Maybe it's ordinary life: Full of flat tires, mortgage payments and late nights that make it hard to think past our own mailboxes.

But every now and then, we've got to stand up and remind ourselves who's in charge around here and ask loudly the magnificent question: Are we going to put our faith in democracy or just pretend to?

In 2002, voters in Chattanooga adopted an updated version of the City Charter. It wasn't solely approved by the mayor, or a judge, or group of millionaires.

It was approved by the people. Because that is what happens in a democracy.

The charter contains many things, including some of the dullest sentences I've ever read, but sections 3 and 11 are works of beauty. They're fireballs, litmus tests, the line in the sand that citizens cross when they stop pretending to play PG-13, junior-varsity democracy and begin to really take things seriously.

These are the sections that allow for the recall of elected officials and the creation of initiatives (putting the ability to craft ordinances in the hands of citizens) and referendums (putting initiatives on the ballots for a popular vote).

On the agenda for next Tuesday's City Council meeting is a first reading of an ordinance that would change the process for citizen-led initiatives and referendum, dumping out the City Charter language for something that matches state law.

The ordinance proposes that the beloved sections 11.24 and 11.25 -- which deal with initiatives and referendum -- would be repealed "in their entirety" and replaced.

The charter requires an initiative petition to be signed by 25 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last mayoral election. Based on the nearly 19,000 votes cast in the 2008 mayoral election, we're talking about 4,500 or so signatures.

Doable. Reasonable. Possible.

But the new plan would defer to state law, which requires signatures from 15 percent of all registered voters in the city. That would more than triple the number of signatures. Out of more than 100,000 registered voters in Chattanooga, the initiative-petition would need more than 15,000 voter signatures.

No longer possible. Or doable. Or democratic.

Why would the council do such a thing?

Since most people can't run for public office, certain levers are kept in place -- petitions, initiatives, referendum -- that keep power flowing downward, into the hands of regular people.

Consider our city's housing crisis. Overrun by poverty and a lack of affordable housing, poor and working-class Chattanoogans are running out of options. That's why a group of citizens has started an initiative: Any demolished housing unit would have to be replaced with a new unit, in an even-Steven, one-for-one swap.

Thank God. Citizens standing up, working to change their world for the better. Who would oppose them?

Looks like their own government. The initiative is all jammed up now as government attorneys pick it to pieces, claiming it violates state zoning laws. Or wasn't filed in the right place. Or this, or that, until the thing is flatter than last year's birthday balloon.

Along the way, we lose the power of our City Charter. We lose faith in people's ability to govern themselves. Democracy becomes flat, like worn-out shoes.

And the government should be the last group responsible for this.