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Our view: Sway of public opposition often too strong

6:18 PM, Jan. 22, 2013  |  Comments
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It is an age-old dilemma faced by lawmakers everywhere - from the halls of Congress to City Hall: Vote the apparent will of the people or vote conscience.

Two cases in point were presented to members of the Manitowoc City Council recently. On Monday, the council voted 6-3 against a request to rezone land on Cleveland Avenue that would have allowed construction of a two-story commercial office building in what is primarily a residential area.

Last November, the council rejected on a 10-1 vote a conditional use permit for a men's homeless shelter on South 29th Street.

Both proposals were defeated after council members had expressed some initial support that would indicate, if not passage, at least a closer vote. Their minds were changed, apparently, by overwhelming opposition from those living in the affected neighborhoods.

Both decisions were difficult. Changing zoning, particularly in residential areas, can be tricky business and open the door to similar requests elsewhere in the municipality.

Emotions understandably ran high during debate on the homeless shelter issue. Fear of the unknown and the wishes of the neighborhood ultimately won out.

We don't have a problem with either decision that the council reached. We do have a problem, however, if the only factor taken into consideration by individual members of the council was neighborhood opposition.

It is easy to legislate on that basis, but that doesn't make it right. There are many issues where NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) politics can come into play. Nobody apparently wants homeless shelters, living facilities for the developmentally disabled, and homes for rehabilitating drunks or drug addicts in their "back yards." The opposition is predictable and often very vocal.

Voting the will of the people is not always right. It was once the will of the people, for example, that restrooms in the South be labeled White and Colored.

Lawmakers should view vocal opposition as just one of several factors in reaching a decision. They have more information on particular issues at their disposal than does the general public. They should utilize that information to make an informed - not an emotional - decision. It appears in these two particular cases that neighborhood opposition was the overriding factor that pushed other considerations to the curb.

Financial advisor Nathan Raddatz, who proposed constructing the office building on Cleveland Avenue, said he is "comfortable" with the decision and respects the process by which it was reached.

We are as well. We're not quite as comfortable with the process and final vote in the homeless shelter debacle, however. Homeless men have few options in our community. The proposed Haven facility would have given these men a better chance to get back on their feet. They had no voice in the matter, as the neighborhood opponents did.

One alderman initially told Haven representatives he would support the shelter unless he received at least 50 phone calls in opposition. He received more than 50 calls and changed his mind.

Therein lies the dilemma. We believe our representatives should - at appropriate times - vote their consciences rather than caving to entirely predictable public opposition.

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