Other Voices: The responsibility for Grass Valley’s growth and future
The citizens’ “Managed Growth Initiative” requires the city to follow its General Plan’s vision of how Grass Valley should grow. The initiative and its proposals reflect a deeply democratic process. Abraham Lincoln eloquently propounded the democratic ideal at stake here: We are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Correspondingly, California’s Constitution forthrightly declares: “All political power is inherent in the people.” And: “The people have the right to instruct their representatives.”
Requiring voter approval for changes to fundamental, constitutional guidance is common: Amendments to both California’s Constitution and Grass Valley’s Charter must be approved by the electorate. Significantly, California courts consider a General Plan a community’s “constitution for future development,” thereby specifying the relationship between a plan and zoning ordinances to implement it.
Similarly, the Managed Growth Initiative incorporates the current General Plan’s core – the Land Use Element and Map – into law, and requires the city’s zoning to be consistent with it. This is normal for un-chartered towns. Further, amendments to that core (just six over the last nine years) must be approved by Grass Valley’s voters.
Council members find this awkward. At a May 27 presentation of the initiative to the city, Councilman Miller opined: “The reason we have representative government, … is because the people elect representatives who share the same values and visions that they do, and so that’s why we sit up here, that’s why people place trust in us – so you’re, basically, in this arena of city govern- ment, you want to make it a pure democracy, and you want it – rather – eliminate the representative government portion of it.”
On the contrary, the American experiment relies on both representative and direct democracy to guide it. For example, in 1911, Republican Progressives introduced a swath of constitutional amendments consolidating popular sovereignty in reaction to the railroads’ powerful and corrosive stranglehold on California’s representative democracy. Results included procedures of initiative, referendum and recall, permitting citizens to, among other things, directly propose and challenge legislative actions.
Why the Managed Growth Initiative? The proponents’ attorney replied to the City Council, explaining: “An interesting aspect of (uncheck-ed) representative government (permits) a handful of those who have the vast economic resources or political power (to) influence those who are sitting in the positions where you are … California expressly reserves the right of the voters to correct those types of abuses of power. That is what this initiative makes sure will happen with regard to the future of this city, that … changes to its General Plan reflect the values of the people, not … of five people.”
Importantly, Grass Valley’s Charter recognizes that: “The legislative power of the City of Grass Valley shall be vested in the people through the initiative and referendum and the council.” In keeping with California’s constitutional requirement, the city’s Charter explicitly states: “There are hereby reserved to the electors of the city the powers of the initiative and referendum and of the recall of municipal elective officers.”
Although citizens can express their displeasure with elected officials by voting them out, four years can be a long wait. Furthermore, while recall is a valuable corrective, it demands huge energy and is very disruptive. Far simpler and more efficient is to craft clear rules that direct elected officials toward the community’s publicly established goals. Funda- mental rules intended to ex-press a community’s central values and aspirations are too important to be left to officials’ sole discretion or to their “flexible” interpretation.
Yet, for several years the city has flirted with, even encouraged, huge residential projects in the Special Develop-ment Areas that vastly exceed the growth anticipated by the General Plan. Also, the city has consistently resisted wide-spread evidence – from public meetings and polls – showing that its citizens do not want rapid growth and big projects. Perversely, it ignores its own study’s conclusion that the General Plan’s planned growth is more fiscally sound and sustainable than big developers’ proposals. Self-interestedly, it opposes any attempt – even the mayor’s developer-supported initiative – to constrain its unfettered discretion to change or re-interpret the General Plan.
Clearly, representative stewardship in Grass Valley needs citizen oversight.
The Managed Growth Initiative is simple and transparent. By incorporating the General Plan’s core into law, the city becomes legally bound to follow it.
While the city will still develop and propose amendments, a generation of ballot-box scrutiny ensures that Grass Valley’s land-use governance really is of, by and for the people: its citizens.
Howie Muir, western Nevada County. His wife co-owns a Grass Valley business.
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