Taxation Without Representation

Updated: Mar 3

[This is a citizen post by Mike Sheehy, a longtime advocate for Madison residents and a member of the I Am Madison Citizens Coalition. Citizen posts are not official I Vote Madison posts]




“Men (representatives) of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages (votes), and then betray the interests, of the people”.
James Madison

We purportedly live in a representative democracy, where citizens elect officials who represent citizen interests, ideas, and concerns in the exercise of political power. That sounds really great, empowering even. But how is that truly holding up in local municipalities like Madison?


Let’s start with the suffrages. In the fall, Madison citizens voted a district council representative (also council president) out of office in favor of a different type of leadership for the city. Yet promptly to follow, the mayor appointed that individual as city administrator. Wait, what!?! Is that honoring the citizens’ wishes, or is that flipping the proverbial middle finger at them and the new council member they chose.


Is it simply coincidence that suffrage means both vote and prayer?


In December I reached out to my own district council representative about concerns that citizens were being redirected to the mayor’s office and staff, under a rumored “one voice” policy that dissuaded council members from responding themselves to constituents. Ironically, she referred me to the mayor.


Madison citizens elected council members to serve roles that are distinct from that of the mayor, with separate responsibilities and sometimes divergent perspectives (like Congress and the White House). Each elected representative has a legal, moral, and ethical obligation to speak with their own voice when fulfilling these functions. Council members who defer their independence defeat the purpose of our representative form of government.


To their credit, several council members proactively communicate with constituents via newsletters, blogs, social media, and even phone calls…beyond simply posting the mayor’s updates on their own sites. Contrarily, one has notoriously gone dormant since the election, reportedly not even responding to emails from his district members let alone actively updating them. Another has gone to the other extreme and allegedly used false identities to gain access to private social media groups.


In his blog post, “The Cost of Deceptive Politics,” ethics professor Dana Radcliffe states, “From a moral point of view, what's wrong with deception is that it is a betrayal of trust.” “In every domain of life, such betrayals weaken or destroy the trust relationships essential to our vital institutions, including…representative government.”


Their actions suggest that some city leaders believe citizens should have only a temporary role in representative democracy, in which citizen voices matter only once every four years. Transparency was a platform priority for most challengers during the election, but not for a single incumbent. The mayor has observed that council members “have multiple one-on-one and small group meetings with Department Heads”, and the city “can’t be any more transparent than that.” I’m left pondering how closed-door meetings and manicured “one voice” communications provide any degree of transparency for the public.


In recent council meetings regarding property rezonings, council members stated that they had done their “due diligence” prior to the public hearings and made their decisions before the public even had a chance to comment. Yet this predetermination is in direct conflict with Alabama statute, which requires public hearings for rezoning ordinances and states, “citizens shall have an opportunity to be heard.” In the Alabama Municipal Journal, General Counsel Lori Lein notes that “the purpose of a public hearing is to allow the public to speak and to gather input and comments from the public”, adding that “public input and testimony may help support the basis for the Council’s decision.”


Wouldn’t it follow that if council members unlawfully predetermine their votes on a rezoning ordinance that the votes would therefore be unlawful and invalidate the decision?


Public hearings and comments serve a significant governmental interest. Madison citizens have provided council not only public opinion but expertise and facts to counterbalance input from vested parties that has at times been misleading or false. Yet there has been occasion where city leaders have publicly and righteously rebuked citizens for making false statements on critical matters, even though records and subject matter experts validated the citizens’ comments as wholly accurate.


No citizen wants to feel as though their investment of research, knowledge, and talent is wasted on a council that dismisses facts and predetermines votes. People communicate to entertain, inform, or influence. Citizens are not at public hearings to entertain council, and their input to such council decisions is not a courtesy but a right.


The National Conference of State Legislatures underscored “the critical relationship between government and the people it serves”, observing that “the framers of the Constitution ensured in our country's founding document that the voice of the people would drive our government.”


Madison’s elected officials have expressed flowery (in instances patronizing) appreciation for the swell of active citizen participation in council meetings and “opinions” on important city decisions. Yet in the same breath certain officials reproach the citizens for not participating in the process earlier than the public hearings (meaning at some unknown point before council votes are predetermined). These certain council members mistakenly presume that citizens are even aware of the issues in advance, even though council members themselves aren’t notifying their constituents and agendas are only posted one business day prior. And though state statute requires advance publication of public hearings (for rezoning ordinances, three consecutive weeks in the county), council members themselves don’t know where the information is published. Unsurprisingly, publication regarding the subject rezonings did not even occur in their respective county.


Wouldn’t it follow that if publication did not occur in the affected county, as required by statute, that the adopted ordinance would not be lawful? Wouldn’t it follow that if council members themselves don’t even know when and where proposed ordinance schedulings are communicated, they can’t expect their constituents to know?


To be clear, the public does not have a legal right to speak at every council session. But the council has the right to invite public comment if it deems that input to be of value. On 20 January, council held a work session ostensibly to discuss how to improve communication with the public. It was a lost opportunity when it turned instead to a staff briefing and excluded public comment, in addition to being limited to Zoom and not livestreamed on television or the city’s YouTube channel.


In balance, Madison is a magnificent community, in large due to the extraordinary work of our elected officials (along with amazingly capable and committed city professionals). Our representatives make weighty and complex decisions that will impact our city’s future in perpetuity, with responsibilities that include transparency and responsiveness to constituents they could never, never please in full, despite their best efforts. Yet open governance and adherence to the principles of a representative democracy both cultivate the trust of constituents and serve as an azimuth check for critical decisions.


Government ethics expert Hanna Callaghan reflected in her guide, Voting for Ethics, that “Our process for electing public officials is borne out of the ethical ideal of creating an informed electorate.” We tend to take for granted that the elected officials we empowered and entrusted are honoring their commitments and our votes. But effective representative democracies are participatory democracies, where citizens’ voices are genuinely valued even after elections have passed.


“When the whole power of the society is lodged in the Hands of the whole society, the government is called a democracy, or the rule of the many. When the sovereignty, or supreme power is placed in the hands of a few great, rich, wise men, the government is an aristocracy, or the rule of the few.”
John Adams

We don’t live in an aristocracy. And we don’t live in a direct democracy, where citizens decide every matter. We live in a democracy where representatives exercise the political power granted them by citizens to advance the interests, ideas, and concerns of those very citizens. We don’t need full-time citizen overwatch of our capable elected officials. But they are representatives and should grant citizens due consideration in their decision making process. After all, one can’t promote public interests without “public.”


We the people…


Epilogue:


Retired Lieutenant General Charles Lucky reminds that we all have a right and a responsibility to participate in democracy. I would add that it is a privilege to contribute.


Several public interest groups help increase public awareness and foster participatory democracy. These include I Vote Madison (www.ivotemadison.com) a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative promoting accessible information that notes, “Engaging in local politics doesn't just happen on election day,” and its I Am Madison citizens coalition. These also include social media groups like Madison City Government Transparency (NextDoor) and Madison Past, Present, Future (Facebook).


The city’s transparency site also contains links to helpful information www.madisonal.gov/1188/Transparency-101.


Consider encouraging your elected officials to take the Pro-Truth Pledge at www.protruthpledge.org.



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