Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Village board needs a civics lesson

by John Halverson

July 25, 2013

At the very least, it was a fast one.

Some might even call it sleazy.

No matter how you characterize it, Genoa City's village board hijacked the political process last week.

A petition was submitted to the village to require that capital projects costing more than $500,000 go to a referendum for approval.

Hours after that petition was turned in, the board effectively scuttled the petitioners' goal by passing an ordinance.

That ordinance states that a referendum can only be held for projects exceeding $2 million. Since a referendum can't override an already established ordinance, the petition for a $500,000 limit became moot.

That strategy by the board was apparently legal because even though the petition was turned in before the ordinance was passed, it hadn't been certified, so it wasn't official.

At the root of the petition is concern that the village may spend money on a new village hall. The petitioners are against that idea.

The board members say nothing is carved in stone, that a committee is studying the issue, and that the petitioners are misguided by misinformation.

Maybe so. But whose fault is that?

If the issue was so big that it festered, board members should have been going door-to-door to make their case and explain "the facts."

True, citizens who don't seek out the facts are culpable to a degree, but the ultimate responsibility for getting out information falls on the board especially on an issue this big.

There should have been enough time for thoughtful consideration, dissemination of information and community input. There still is, but the referendum and the ram-rodding of the ordinance has created drama and expended energy that could have been used for conversation instead of controversy.

In other words, it should never have gotten this far.

The board's biggest mistake, though, was its refusal to allow public input during discussion of the ordinance itself. They allowed comment during the public comment portion of the agenda, but not when the ordinance came up for a vote.

Board members say they were elected and shouldn't be micromanaged. But weighing in on a decision on how to spend $500,000 in a village the size of Genoa City is hardly day-to-day micromanagement.

Besides, being elected doesn't give one dictatorial rights, and it isn't the only mechanism of a representative democracy.

Referendums and petitions are another tool of elected government. They're part of the balance of power that the board members don't seem to accept.

What is the board afraid of?

If they think they're right then they should have summoned a crowd of their supporters to argue against those on the other side. That's how these things work.

Sadly, this has many of the markings of the city council debates in Lake Geneva a few years ago.

Maybe Genoa City needs a history lesson.

The current Genoa City village president is a leader in the effort against the referendum while the referendum has the strong support of a former village president.

In Lake Geneva, it was a similar situation.

The former mayor, or at least his supporters, had issues with the mayor in office at the time.

In that case, the reigning mayor made a big mistake in by overstepping his bounds and strong-arming the opposition just as the village board has now.

The Lake Geneva mayor's tactics backfired.

The debate disintegrated to the point where it made national news, embarrassed the city and created bad blood that may never be resolved.

In a democratic society, right ought to rule the day, not might. The winners today may turn out to be the losers of tomorrow if they don't look for common ground.

Someone needs to be grown up enough in Genoa City to see what's happening and to step in to be a conciliator.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.