What should govern votes?

Published 4:27 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2019

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The Board of Supervisors’ recent vote to transfer 20 acres of land to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice for construction of a juvenile detention center raises a classic question of representative government that’s as old as our Republic.

Should elected representatives attempt, at all times, to reflect the “will of the people” as defined by those who appear before or contact them in a given situation? Or should they vote for what they believe is in the best interest of the community when it clearly runs counter to a significant amount of public opinion?

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The opponents of the proposed juvenile detention center justifiably feel that the three supervisors who voted to offer the land to Virginia did so in direct contradiction to the opponents’ wishes. There’s absolutely no questioning that.

Should the county supervisors, in an instance like this, conduct an opinion poll to test the public sentiment in the county and then be bound by the results in whatever vote they take? At least informally, that’s the way U.S. Congress operates — or fails to operate — today. Thanks to instant polling, interminable news cycles, social media and a general distrust of our historic institutions, government has backed way from a representative form of government to something that might be viewed as a more “democratic” approach, in which the will of the people, or at least a segment of them, is constantly measured and responded to.

The result in Washington, at least, has been an increasingly dysfunctional government. Senators and congressmen are inclined to watch daily polls to see what direction the wind is blowing among the “base” of their party, and they’re afraid to do anything that might upset the most vocal among their constituents.

That’s not to say that elected representatives at any level should ignore voters. Quite the contrary. Public hearings and other public input are vital to the reasonable operation of local government. And over the years, critics of any number of proposals have provided valuable input at the courthouse — input that has weighed heavily, and positively, on outcomes.

But public opinion of a given proposal cannot be the lone factor in deciding its merits. The fact is, that in 2019, public opinion would likely kill the geese that have laid many golden eggs for Isle of Wight.

Let’s suppose, for example, that a startup company came to the county and said it would like to be a modern abattoir (a slaughter house) that would process several thousand hogs a day, and would like to locate it on the scenic banks of the Pagan River. Or suppose an enterprising family told the supervisors they wanted to build a paper mill in the county.

Neither facility would have a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning public support today, and elected Town Council or Board of Supervisors members would be lobbied heavily to oppose such industry. Yet, few of us would like to see the remaining packing plant close or the paper mill to close again, as it did a decade ago.

A partial answer to the decision-making dilemma is governmental transparency, but there is often precious little of that commodity when decisions are being shaped. In fact, much of the criticism of the juvenile facility has centered on what is perceived to be a lack of transparency by the county when the proposal was being shaped early last year.

Nor is secrecy sporadic. The county’s entire economic development effort takes place privately, and a lot of that privacy is necessary, but it places an awful lot of trust in the hands of paid employees and an appointed — not elected — Economic Development Authority to do what’s “best” for the county.

Neither the county nor its two towns have terribly good records in the business of transparency. They tend to commit to things in private that are quite controversial when they finally become public.

Never forget that the costly Norfolk water deal was kept totally under wraps until it was too late for county voters to stop it. We’ll be paying for that decision for another 30 years.

There is no “right” answer to the question posed at the beginning of this column. Representative government is not, by its very definition, fully democratic, but neither should it ignore or take public opinion lightly.

In the end, that’s what elections are for. They are the only public opinion poll that really counts.