Time for a Boardwalk ballot initiative in Nevada City?

imgresI’m not a big fan of ballot initiatives — and never have been. But sometimes an initiative can have a “cleansing” impact, helping us to understand what people really are thinking.

In small towns, we tend to side with our like-minded friends rather than look at the “big picture,” so we’re not always clear what “most” people think.

Ideologues from outside the city limits often jump into the fray, attempting to hijack the town with their own skewed political view. I don’t tell Penn Valley how to live (and wouldn’t presume to deal with their current zoning “crisis”), so why should they decide the fate of the Boardwalk where I live? Because they don’t like Nevada City’s politics.

Maybe it’s time for a city ballot initiative to decide the fate of the Boardwalk. You know, let the citizens who live here decide — not the out-of-town letter writers or activists.

If it’s a real hyperlocal issue — like the Boardwalk — it’s less apt to be influenced by outside money or special interests, the biggest drawback to the initiative process. I suspect the Koch Brothers or Americans for Safe Access would pass on this one.

But we seem to be struggling with the Boardwalk in our hyperlocal “legislative” branch. First, the City Council decided to keep the Boardwalk after a lot of public debate — for a year.

Now, just when we thought we could move on, another issue has surfaced: Whether to keep the lights that criss-cross the street above the Boardwalk. It’s going to lead to another debate before City Council.

The Boardwalk without lights is like roller skates without a key, and I suspect the opponents know that. If you take down the lights, the Boardwalk could fail. The lights are pleasant to look at, but they also offer public safety benefits — just like any lighted street in town. They go together.

So let’s stop beating around the bush and think more seriously about putting the Boardwalk to a vote. Gather the signatures and put them on the ballot. Debate the merits — practical, historical and otherwise — and let the citizens of Nevada City decide.

The biggest problem our small towns face nowadays is the perception of what “everybody thinks” versus the reality. We assume too much. It leads to a “good old boys” mindset. Who knows, we might learn something about ourselves.

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About jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.
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10 Responses to Time for a Boardwalk ballot initiative in Nevada City?

  1. Moira says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  2. steve cottrell says:

    Jeff:

    Writing as an out-of-town (hell, out-of-state) opponent of the Boardwalk, I agree that using the local initiative process for an issue like this might have a cleansing effect, but the key will be in how, if such a measure is placed on the ballot, will it be framed? If it happens, will voters be asked, “Shall the Commercial Street Boardwalk be dismantled?” or, “Shall the Commercial Street Boardwalk be retained?”

    How the hypothetical ballot question is framed could have a big impact on the outcome of the vote. It often does.

    As a student of the political process, you know that success or failure of such special ballot measures is determined by the zealots –– those with an emotional investment one way or the other. So which side do you think has the greatest number of energized zealots ready to organize, knock on doors, raise money for ads, and convince voters that their side is right?

    It would be interesting, that’s for sure.

  3. jeffpelline says:

    Yes, the framing of the ballot question is important. And it could effect the outcome either way. Let’s hope the “framers” keep that in mind.

  4. GregZaller says:

    The no vote from the historical society is curious. A hundred and fifty years ago it is not hard to imagine the streets themselves as the place to converse with the occasional horse and foot traffic in contrast to a dangerous no man’s land dominated by a river of tourist laden automobiles. Why would the historical society begrudge a tiny island to satisfy our historical ancient human need to connect in public places? It is curmudgeon-like. I suspect that resistance to change may be a part of it, but most importantly, I suspect that the boardwalk is unfortunately a battle prize of the needless polarization in this community where one “side” or the other undoes itself to undo the other. “Can we all just get along?”

    • jeffpelline says:

      Greg,

      I always appreciate your attitude: “Can we all just get along?” But the answer apparently is “No.” As some of the nasty commentary in the hard-right blogosphere this week has shown, we have political divides in our County that run deep and are multi-generational. It’s personal, and a lot of folks seem to thrive on it.

      Reinette Senum and her supporters were venomously attacked in the “Other Voices” by the tea party supporter Jean Whatever. And the paper just went along and published it, like it was OK. Around here, it’s a mini-version of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — or whatever example you can think of.

      Nowhere is the polarization more apparent that with the rancor over this tiny wooden structure. The city’s historic standing is not at stake — and it never has been. What’s at stake is the egos of long timers who like to “run the show” and worry about losing their grip. It’s selfish and counterproductive.

      We are big supporters and donors to the Railroad Museum and love the idea of gas-lit lamps (not electric ones) in town. We are “history buffs.” But we also see the value of the Boardwalk in being a catalyst to some new “good vibes,” including the First Friday Art Walk. It’s a balancing act but hardly as tough as we make it seem.

      It must be shocking to move here and discover all this political rancor. I know it was for me.

  5. jeffpelline says:

    Duane is going to run for re-election:
    http://www.theunion.com/news/10200335-113/strawser-council-nevada-election

    “Even though I supported the boardwalk, I am adamant about protecting the history of Nevada City,” Strawser said. “I want to make sure that we get back on the ball with our historic ordinance,” he added. “I agree completely, for example, with removing the lights (over the boardwalk). They should have never been put up ­— except for maybe a one-day event.”

    Good politics but wonder how the Boardwalk is going to stay well lit. Round and round and round we go ….

  6. Judith Lowry says:

    I miss neon signs.
    How are they not part of the towns history?

    Also, why all the white Xmas lights trimming the old buildings.
    Someone even suggested we put them on the Powell.
    That would have been “gilding the lily” and tacky, donchathink?

  7. steve cottrell says:

    I agree with Duane about the lights, but methinks the current city attorney needs to remind members of the council (and planning commission) about Nasha vs City of Los Angeles (2004).

    From the time I took office as a councilman in 1992, until early 2005, members of the council (myself included) would sometimes state their opinion to the media and others in advance of a meeting. Then, when a councilmember’s impartiality was challenged by a citizen, the city attorney would remind everyone that public officials had First Amendment rights just like other folks.

    Then along came Nasha vs City of L.A.

    In early 2005, we were advised that we could no longer state our opinion in advance of a meeting on an issue being considered by the council –– in writing or verbally –– unless we were prepared to step away from the council table and leave the chambers while the item was being discussed and decided. That really impacted news reporters who were used to candid interviews with officeholders then filing stories that offered enough insight to safely predict the vote at a pending public meeting. But like it or not, it’s been the law in California for ten years.

    Once the State Supreme Court decided Nasha vs City of Los Angeles, and the city attorney publicly advised us of its consequences, my Other Voices days at The Union came to an end. Needless to say, that made some of my city council colleagues –– and at least one key City Hall staff member –– very happy.

    • stevefrisch says:

      This is a really tough issue. Nash has basically eliminated first amendment rights for elected officials outside of their quasi-judicial role. I think candidates should be aware of this before they run for public office…

      http://www.cacities.org/UploadedFiles/LeagueInternet/23/235f10e8-2332-40b7-993e-48a1a9367686.pdf

      • steve cottrell says:

        Steve:

        Thanks for the link. Good information.

        Although there seems to be some wiggle room when it comes to campaign press releases and campaign promises, the following statement from the linked material regarding the practical effect of the Nasha decision sums things up pretty well: “Your announcement of how you intend to vote, before you heard the information presented at the public hearing, is a problem in this regard.”

        I agree with you –– it’s a tough issue and can be a difficult standard to meet, (especially in a small town), but being assured of a fair and impartial hearing is a fundamental right.

        In Duane’s case, he said what he believed, and I can’t fault him for that. Unfortunately, the restrictions now placed upon public officials makes it hard for them to be openly and publicly direct and responsive to issues that concern the citizens they represent.

        You’re right –– candidates need to know that life as an elected public official is different than life as a private citizen. And that’s a choice they have to make.

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