Since I used to be a newspaper reporter, I’ve probably been to thousands of city council meetings. Maybe just hundreds. I don’t know. It’s been awhile. Tuesday night reminded me of why I don’t miss having to regularly watch those train wrecks.
You know the things you read these days about the so-called “wisdom of crowds”? Attending pretty much any meeting where the public gets to present its views directly to elected officials will disabuse you of the notion that there’s any wisdom in the room. You’ll wonder whether all the smart people stayed home to read books instead of coming to this tedious affair.
I’m dangerously close to ranting. Sorry about that. I’m just very frustrated about what I witnessed tonight. Let me back up a bit.
I wrote Monday about the sales tax that my suburb’s city government is planning to ram down our throats. When a property tax was put to a vote last year, 72 percent said, “No,” but the City Council seems determined to pass a sales tax to do some of the same projects instead. (A sales tax doesn’t require a public vote.) The meeting tonight was to get the public’s input — and a lot of it ended up being filled with the council members responding to what people were saying, sometimes in very defensive ways.
I had planned to write a more full account of the meeting, but my real account would be short. It would say something such as, “People are stupid. Allowing the majority of these people to make decisions for all of us is insane.” And that wouldn’t be very interesting. Or nice. It would, however, be truthful.
At times, I wasn’t sure whether the bigger idiots were the ones who agreed with me about the tax or the ones who supported it. Their statements ranged from the banal to the irrational to the strange:
- There was the woman who was in the middle of building a house here in Trussville last spring, but she said she immediately put construction on hold when she heard a thrift store might be moving to town — because that would destroy the city. (She’s for the tax.)
- There was the school bus driver who told us irrelevant things that happen on the bus he drives. (He’s for the tax.)
- There was the guy whose understanding of math was so poor that he couldn’t understand why a 2-percent tax that currently generates $10 million a year would generate an additional $5 million per year if it were raised to 3 percent. (He’s against the tax.)
- And then there was the guy who stood there talking about how much he appreciated the council members’ hard work or … well … something or other that didn’t quite make sense. He ended up saying he didn’t know what he thought of the tax, leaving me to wonder why he spoke at all.
Then there were the ever-popular variations of, “Do it for the children,” which was repeated in various nauseating ways, mostly by those in favor of the tax, but a few against it, too. This sentiment was summed up by the bus driver when he said, “We should not let money come before the safety of our kids.” And what is the “safety issue”? When children are being transported from the local high school to other places, buses have to drive several miles out of the way because there’s not a bridge over a small river near the high school. So since those children are on buses for more miles than they otherwise would be, they’re clearly in mortal danger and we need to increase the city’s portion of sales tax by 50 percent. Yeah, that makes sense.
Another continuing theme was that people wanted the projects built that the council was promising, but they didn’t want the tax to pay for it. Do people understand that there’s a connection between the two? They can’t have the things they think are great unless they pay for them, but they don’t want to pay for them. One of the few sane and rational speakers pointed this out when he said, “We’re all the problem. We’ve asked for things. But the increasing taxation has got to stop.”
The elected officials made it clear that they’re totally out of touch with reality. They act as though it’s perfectly reasonable for them to keep raising taxes and spending massive amounts of money, despite the fact that people were pleading that they couldn’t afford any more taxes. They honestly seem oblivious to the pain of what they’re about to cause for people. And I think the odds of them doing anything other than voting in favor of the tax are slim and none. A couple of the council members in particular seemed terribly arrogant.
There were only three people tonight who really impressed me. A woman who’s a former council president spoke to warn that if the council pursues the projects it’s talking about, the city will have to do a bond issue — borrow money, in other words — to do it. She pointed out that if tax revenues go down, the city will still have the debt. (The current council president quickly said that no one had yet agreed to borrow money, but it was obvious that she was right.) The other two were people I’d never heard of, one a young white guy and the other a middle-aged black guy. They both spoke very reasonably, logically and respectfully about why the tax was a bad idea. Sadly, I doubt they were heard by the people who matter.
I’m going to end this now, because I’m doing a remarkably poor job of giving you a flavor of what it was like to be there. It was chaotic on a rational level, because half of what I heard made me want to immediately correct the ignorance or stupidity that I was hearing. That kind of cognitive chaos frustrates me and leaves me ready to find smart people to hang out with — to remind myself that they still exist.
For anyone who honestly believes that a majoritarian system is a good idea, attending meetings such as this on a regular basis should cure you of that. The moral logic against the majoritarian system is something you don’t need to be there to get, but listening to people’s irrational and contradictory demands of elected officials should make you sure that it’s not practical, either.
I think I have a rational insight or two to offer based on this meeting, but I’m not in the frame of mind to offer it right now. I might very well come back to it later. For now, I’m just frustrated and angry and disillusioned about just how irrational and unreasonable human beings can be. (You can read a straight news account of the meeting from The Birmingham News if you’d like.)
The experience leaves me eager to go find an island to move to — far away from the crazies. I just need a few people to go with me, along with some rather serious investment capital, of course. Don’t dismiss the idea too casually.