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Referendum process is being abused

by Greg Belfrage

SIOUX FALLS, SD -  Sioux Falls voters will be deciding the fate of a controversial zoning ordinance called Shape Places.  Shape Places has been in development since 2009 and was recently passed by the City Council. 

However, opponents of a proposed Walmart at 85th and Minnesota have collected enough signatures to force Shape Places to a public vote.

This morning I interviewed Jeff Schmitt, chief planning officer for Sioux Falls, to discuss the Shape Places ordinance.  You can hear the entire interview HERE .

Its not my intention in this column to debate the proposed location of Walmart in south central Sioux Falls.  Nor am I casting blame on residents who have legitimate concerns about commercial development in their neighborhood.

It is the use of the referendum process to place a zoning issue on the ballot that I find highly objectionable.  I am deeply troubled by the growing trend in this state of putting complex issues on the ballot every time we don't like a decision made by our elected representatives.  We've seen it time and again with education funding, state business funds, snow gates and now... zoning ordinances.

Schmitt says the city held 60 public meetings on Shape Places.  City planners worked with contractors, businesses, residents and elected officials for four years to craft the new package.  The Sioux Falls City Council considered, debated and passed Shape Places.  It was the first time since 1983 that the city's zoning laws had been updated.

Now the issue will be decided by voters, many of whom couldn't tell you how many people sit on the City Council.  They might even be hard pressed to tell you who represents them on the council.  To be brutally honest, some have a hard time finding their correct polling place!

The ugly truth is that the public has no right voting on these kinds of intricate issues.  There will be those who will say to me, "But Belfrage, we live in a democracy!" 

No, we do not.  We live in a representative republic.  We elect people to manage government on behalf of those of us who do not have the time to study and understand the full impact of complex issues, such as zoning.  That is not an insult of the public, but an acknowledgement that most of us simply do not have a deep level of understanding of the challenges facing our communities.

Take a look at the Shape Places ordinance. Many will not even take the time to read it.  However, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.  Do you understand it?  Have you spoken to developers, businesses and residents throughout the city in order to gain perspective on how it will impact the city?  City officials have done so.

Residents of Sioux Falls had four years to weigh in on the new zoning regulations. Now, after years of study, planning and consideration, a small handful of residents they think they know better.  Its insulting.

I support the use of the referendum when a legislative body has blatantly disregarded the will of the people.  I support the use of referendums on highly emotional and deeply personal issues, such as abortion.  

However, I do not support referendums on matters in which the public has had more than ample opportunity to participate in the process.  Nor do I think referendums should be used to toss out the reasonable actions of properly elected officials and turn those complex decisions over to a generally uniformed, selfish and fickle public.

Its time to start letting our local and state representatives do their jobs.  They spend many long, tedious hours involved in studying and debating these issues.  The public has plenty of opportunity to visit with their elected leaders and make their views known.  If officials defy the public, we can hold them accountable by tossing them out of office.  

Let's allow our republic to function as it was designed.  I find that far preferable to allowing a handful of people with their own agenda to overturn every decision simply because they don't happen to like it.

Greg Belfrage is heard mornings from 6am-9am on KELO Newstalk 1320 AM / 107.9 FM.