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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Madison Common Council members peeved by the call for a vote on Judge Doyle Square
Do referendums make democracy too messy?
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Mark Clear (left) tweeted a photo of David Ahrens (right) gathering signatures for a referendum and accused him of wanting ‘to kill Monona Terrace.’

Ald. Mark Clear is no fan of referendums.

"It's sort of mob rule," Clear says of letting citizens legislate at the ballot. "Whichever side has the most money is likely to be successful. This is why we have representative government in the first place, so elected officials can understand the details."

Clear especially hates the idea of letting residents weigh in on Judge Doyle Square, a project he champions. The project includes a hotel (to support Monona Terrace), a new parking garage, offices, retail and high-end housing on a two-block area next to Monona Terrace. The city is now negotiating terms with developer Bob Dunn over the project, which would cost as much as $200 million -- with the city's share projected to be as high as $100 million.

Clear's colleague, Ald. David Ahrens, is opposed to the project, which he finds unneeded and a waste of tax money. He's working with a group opposed to subsidizing a private hotel -- Citizens Against Subsidized Hotels (or CA$H) -- to gather the 16,331 signatures needed to place a referendum on project financing on the ballot this November. It would ask whether city ordinance should be changed to require that any project using $10 million or more in tax incremental financing be approved by voters. If it passes, the city would likely hold a referendum on Judge Doyle Square next spring.

But some council members are irked by the notion of getting approval from residents.

Clear posted a picture on Twitter of Ahrens collecting signatures at a Monona Terrace event last Thursday, with the caption: "Guy who wants to kill Monona Terrace circulating petitions to harm Monona Terrace... at Monona Terrace. #irony."

Ald. John Strasser is also upset. "In my opinion, referenda in general don't lead to good public policy," he says. "Look at California -- they try to govern the state by referenda and it becomes ungovernable."

Strasser says voters won't have had the time to study the issues in depth the way council members can. "The amount of information that we as alders have when it comes time to cast a vote yea or nay on a project that size is immense," he says. "[A citizen's] vote is not going to be as informed a vote as the alders would take."

He notes that Wisconsin residents also voted on marriage equality in 2006 -- and barred same-sex couples from marrying.

Ahrens finds the notion that council members are especially well informed ludicrous.

"A lot of what drives the opposition is a sense of being special and wanting to be special," he says. "In discussions I've had with [alders] about these issues, they don't know very much at all. They repeat the same visitors bureau talking points.

"Representative democracy is not a point of perfection," Ahrens adds. "Like any governmental system, there are errors and imperfections. For that reason, [former U.S. Sen.] Bob La Follette proposed that in extraordinary circumstances people should have the ability to legislate directly."

Ahrens says that, in contrast to California, it is extremely difficult to force a referendum here. People must gather 15% of the city's vote in the last gubernatorial election. Says Ahrens: "It really takes a major grassroots effort to do that."

Wisconsin's marriage equality vote, Ahrens says, was not something residents forced upon lawmakers. It followed the representative democracy process, with two successive Legislatures approving the amendment, before going to voters.

Ahrens says those on the opposing side are already spreading misinformation about the referendum. For instance, they're saying it would kill public projects, such as parking garages, when in fact a referendum would only be triggered for private projects.

Katherine Cramer, a UW political science professor, says that Madison prides itself on participatory government, including the ability to have referendums. As a result, things often get complicated.

"[Democracy] gets really messy when people get involved," Cramer says. "It is much easier to run a government when there's not a lot of public input. It doesn't mean it's better government."

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