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Zoning by Referendum? No


It comes as no surprise that the Howard County Board of Elections has rejected a petition aimed at putting the county's recently completed comprehensive rezoning plan on the ballot this fall. The referendum movement stood little chance through a petition drive. Previous court rulings protected Zoning Board decisions from being challenged by referendum.

Now advocates of zoning-by-ballot -- Howard County's slow-growth proponents who fought so passionately against recent re-zoning decisions -- are turning their attention elsewhere. A new petition drive is under way that would amend the county's charter to require the Howard County Council to approve all re-zoning changes and the General Plan with an "original bill," which could then be taken to referendum.

The movement certainly has some visceral appeal. "Voter petition drives are fundamental to democracy," says John Taylor, leader of Howard County Citizens for Responsible Government and an ardent foe of growth plans for the county. "The government has to be very, very careful when it disallows citizen referendums on any topic."

Mr. Taylor's position, however, ignores the good reasons why some government actions should not be subject to a general plebiscite. Among them is that referendums subjugate the deliberative decision-making process elected officials must go through, replacing it with a quick-and-easy mechanism that potentially can give too much power to vocal minorities.

Part of what makes referendums inadequate is their very form. Currently, state law requires that questions on the ballot be confined to no more than 100 words. Often, referendum measures are simply the title of the bills themselves. In other instances, they are crafted by the petitioners. Complicated matters such as rezoning -- which should be driven by the best interests of the entire county, not by those of a particular interest group -- are impossible to boil down into a short paragraph.

Proponents of this drive will argue that referendums present an opportunity for residents to become more educated on the subjects in question. Unfortunately, the history of referendums suggests that an energized electorate is hardly ever the byproduct. Most people simply ignore them.

As frustrating as the current process may be for some, it has its value. It forces elected officials to make informed judgments, and the electorate to vote these officials out when they disagree.

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