November 13, 2007

No More False Dichotomies: Message in a ballot

It is tempting, but probably wrongheaded, to make sweeping assessments about why the library tax referendum failed. It is hard to overlook the fact that people generally won’t vote to increase their own taxes, even if the cause is righteous. Beyond the obvious, however, one of my first thoughts was that a good many people — too many to lump into neat stereotypical clusters — were saying they no longer want their decisions made by the city’s perceived elite.Then, of course, there’s the cranky notion that anything The Courier-Journal supports with extreme enthusiasm must be bad and will therefore be opposed in great numbers. I think the public is also saying it didn’t know enough about the issue. People do not know what the Library really wants to do, not specifically. Although the master plan has been around for several years now, it’s clear that average citizens are not so aware of the details, if they know about the plan at all. Granted, many stories have been written about it over the past seven years, but you know how it is. Unless the tornado is bearing down on your house, you may not even know it’s cloudy. I was invited to speak to a St. Matthews-area church group a couple of weeks ago after some of its members read a story I co-wrote with Rick Redding about the referendum and related issues. The members of the regular breakfast gathering found our story informative, analytical and balanced, and they thought further discussion might help them understand the issues more clearly.Interestingly, and not surprisingly, in this group of folks who were largely 45 and older, a handful piped up with enough consistent questions to belie their particular positions on the matter.One fellow clearly lives in the “don’t tax me anymore, ever” camp.Another gentleman noted that regardless of complaints about how the process had been handled, this was the best shot the Library had at securing the resources it needs to get the job done. He thought the good outweighed the bad and that the cause was worth supporting in spite of legitimate concerns.One woman said she’s definitely a liberal but didn’t appreciate the feeling of being taken for granted, that the so-called progressives who were supporting the tax saw her affirmative vote as a fait accompli.And another man just didn’t know enough about what he didn’t know: What about all of the money that would accrue year after year — wouldn’t that be quite a sizable sum after a while? He could not envision another referendum to remove the tax. “I guess,” he concluded, “that the only way to know some of these answers is if it gets voted down.”Taken together, I think those people do send a message. Don’t take us for granted. Don’t trot out an A-list of local celebrities and prominent figures — people who may never even use the Library — and assume their endorsement will distract us from what seems like smoke and mirrors and a breach of trust. Don’t go moving money around without a good explanation of where it will go. And don’t take us for granted.Now the city stands at an interesting crossroads, as we learn whether those who insisted there is a better way to improve the libraries will stay involved in the issue and spend their time, energy and political capital. They made a lot of noise, and we should hold them accountable.There is now, I think, an opportunity for the library supporters to build the sort of deep support they may have thought they had, but which in the end was so clearly lacking. As frustrating as that may be, it will take yet more hard work — and a lot more humility. They might start by visiting with church groups that get together on Saturday mornings for food and discussion. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com