The Big Decisions Are Where You Need Representative Government

I’m not a fan of the ballot initiative process in general, but I’m especially against it when it comes to really big financial decisions. In Allentown and also in Lehigh County, some people want to change the rules so that really big important financial decisions like asset sales or borrowing have to go to a voter referendum. I think it should be just the opposite. If there are going to be ballot initiatives, they should be for small issues that have very little fiscal impact. The really big decisions are where representative government is most needed, because the elected representatives are supposed to have the time to really study these issues and make informed decisions. What a ballot initiative is really doing is letting the issue be decided by an emotional decision, since most of the people who will be voting will have only a loose understanding of what’s happening.


  1. What representative government? Especially in Allentown where you have something like 3 members of city council being appointed by the mayor and not voted on by the populace.

    Allentown is a great example of everything wrong in government. You are going to Sell/Lease the City’s water system and watershed to fund a special interest give-away (yes public sector unions are special interests) at the expense of the residents of allentown. Talk about one generation fucking the their children and their grandchilden.

    The water system issue will not be decided by a representative government, it will be decided by the mayor’s cronies. A decision like this needs to be voted on by the constituents, and not a handful of people as it will effect thousands and thousands over the course of the term of the lease.

  2. As you probably know, the initiative process was one of the key reforms of the early Progressives–mostly in response to machine politics and the overbearing presence of railroads and other private firms in political decisions.

    Initiatives can be a horrible way to decide how to spend money (California’s education initiatives being some of the worst), but at the local level they are a legitimate and effective way of instructing a council or mayor to do or not do a specific act, such as reforming political institutions in a way unpopular with incumbents.

    This issue seems the perfect one for initiatives. A mayor/council seek to make a short-notice public decision with decades long ramifications for finances and (perhaps) for public health. The Mayor presents some flimsy power-point slides which do nothing to explain how the process would “solve” anything and insists that “no other option” is available (which is patently false). The local press does nothing to delve into the issue and accepts information as given. Worst of all, local legislators are often appointed and leave without facing reelection–often for cush “consulting” jobs.

    I see little evidence that any council has “studied” the issue at all, beyond the impact on his or her relationship with the Mayor. Nor did the same “professional” legislators “study” the impact of the the last devastating police/fire contract on the city’s finances before approving it. So why is an “emotional” approach so much worse?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Yes, the early Progressives did come up with some horrible process reform ideas didn’t they? Ballot initiatives are bad, and the anti-party reforms like cross-filing were even worse. The solution, as ever, is more party competition. In the case of Allentown, where Republicans can’t surmount the disadvantage in party ID, you need something like fusion voting that allows interest groups to act like political parties.

      An emotional basis for fiscal decisions is never appropriate. The reason this is an issue for representative government is that Council members are more informed than the voters. Even if you don’t think it’s enough for Council members to read the proposed lease agreement and ask some questions before voting, that is a hell of a lot more information-gathering than the average voter is going to do before pulling the lever. The average voter is going to hear “Tax increase!” on the one side, and “Higher water rates!” on the other side, and vote according to which feels more right. I promise you they are not studying the lease terms.

      If people think representatives made a bad choice, then they’ll have the opportunity to change out the representatives in the next election. Even in a one-party city, the political system should be able to sort pro-lease from anti-lease politicians.

      • Jon,

        The idea was right for its time. Citizens in California could not easily influence their state government when it was being bought by the railroads. The problem with initiatives in California is that it makes it too easy to spend money without deciding how to pay for it.

        No one is trying to change the rules. The initiative process is in the city charter. Just because it goes against your preferences doesn’t mean its against the rules. People don’t do this all the time and it is difficult to pull off. What reason is there why safeguards shouldn’t be built in that citizens can’t act collectively when their government is acting against their interest.

        Why not have ballot referendums? In many cases, in Europe, the “emotional” response to joining the Euro would have led to rather fewer problems for many countries than the decision of the “educated” political class, who supposedly read everything about it.

        Exactly what philosophical purpose is served if a group of appointed representatives–who already face a lack of political choices in a city that more and more takes on the characteristics of “machine”–blandly accept a political decision? I guess everyone in Allentown, who unlike you and me, actually drink that water, could say “gee, I didn’t like that decision, but isn’t the representative process great?” It is a 50 year lease–far beyond the accountability of a council member.

        Your description of the education level of council members is misleading. There is no “lease agreement”–there’s a draft proposal that has been staffed with a prospective bidder about the terms and conditions. That agreement seems to be noticeably lacking a bid price or any of the “add on” user fees and privilege fees that will supposedly be paid on top of the grandiose bid. There is no Plan B if the bid is less than the asking price. There is no detailed plan about how the funds will be paid (yearly, lump sum) and how they will be used to offset the pension shortfall–or even if they have to be used at all.

        So exactly why is the system “working” and why is the initiative worse than “expert knowledge”? Your argument remains unconvincing.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          I’m not persuaded that the Progressive process reforms were right for their time. Cross-filing in particular was a disaster, a boon to incumbents who could get reelected on name recognition alone. It’s still a scourge in PA school board and judicial elections. I think the big problem in California is Proposition 13, the tax caps and the 2/3 majority required to raise taxes, and how the ballot initiative process interacts with all that.

          Your argument for the ballot initiative seems to be that you prefer the same outcome as the people pushing the initiative, so you support the initiative. You’ve concluded independently, from your own reading, that it’s a bad idea on the merits, so you want the initiative to pass. The argument for a ballot initiative back in the day in the EU is especially weak. Saying that sometimes the emotional response is also the best policy is hardly a case for leaving even more important decisions up to the emotional convulsions of the voters. A stopped clock is right twice a day.

          I also think the lease is a bad idea, and have said so on the blog, but I have an even bigger problem with the idea of regularizing voter referenda on huge financial decisions, which is what the initiatives in Allentown and Lehigh County would do. Any time there’s a big asset sale or new borrowing it goes to a vote? That’s nuts. Just because you think that the incumbent politicians will make bad choices doesn’t mean that all representatives will make bad choices. They’re still more informed than the voters any way you look at it, and the people who are most informed should make the decisions.

          • Generally speaking, I let the train engineer drive the train, but when I see a problem that isn’t going to solve itself, I pull the emergency cord. I see initiative as the emergency cord of local politics. Its not easy to do, you can’t do it every year, but its a nice check on the power of local elites.

            I am against the idea, as are many. What I’m really against are machine politics where a variety of politicians use city politics as a means to push business in a particular decision. I look forward to Pawlowski running for governor in a few years for “solving” Allentown and two mayors from now trying to pay bills with the entire tax base and most of the revenue sources hocked for decades. How do we have an election on that?

            Your view of local politicians is more fit for ancient Greece than the modern world. I’m more of a Federalist Papers kind of guy, and don’t assume that people stop seeing the world through the lens of “interest” just because they are elected. Normally, this is fine and above board. Sometimes it is not.

            You are flat wrong on the EU. Many nations DID have referendums, which were ignored or bypassed by political elites, who voted for the Euro for their own interested reasons (not all were bad). In many cases, principle opposition to the Euro on the very problems that emerged was pooh-poohed as simplistic nationalism. In other countries–like Germany–a referendum was avoided because people feared the exact situation you see today.

            You are partially wrong on Prop 13, and the reality is more complicated than the usual narrative of “those yahoos robbed us.” California is a much richer state than PA–has much higher sales, income, and corporate taxes than most states, and had the hottest property market in America to reset the property tax base–and still couldn’t raise enough in the mid 2000s when i was living there . I think you’ll find on closer look that California pays far more on personnel costs (particularly prison guards and cops) than other states and has way more school districts than it could ever possibly need.

  3. Jon Geeting says:

    Mitchell, I’ve asked you numerous times now what you think should be done about pensions and gotten nothing. I think we agree on what to do about *new* workers, but that’s not really the problem. The problem Pawlowski is trying to address is what they’re already contractually obligated to pay current and retired workers. It’s not a “giveaway” it’s the compensation that they were promised.

  4. What i would do is say fuck it and not pay those outrageous benefits and try it in the court of public opinion/kick it up to the state for pension reform. Let the courts deal with it. let it come to light the people making 110% of their wages, the formula it was calculated out, how they are not playing by “the fair rules” etc. Take a page ouf of the dem playbook.

    The problem Jon is that “what they were promised” is not being paid by the people who promised it…ie..the boomers and the constituents who received the benefits at the time. The tax burden instead is being pushed on the next generation and the future generations at the expense of the water system etc. The can was kicked to the next generations. It is a hell of a thing where one generation can promise themselves great benefits and rewards, and make some other generation pay for it. As a younger individual, i thought you would have some kind of outrage at this.

    • and getting back to your original topic, how can you say allentown has a representative government when City Council has at least 3 appointments by the mayor at this time to vote on something that the public will have to deal with long after Pawloski and this council move on to greener pastures.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      The problem is that’s clearly illegal. A contract is a contract. There’s no way that would hold up in court.

      Of course I’m pissed about overly generous retirement packages, “spiking” and the rest. The reason I am a liberal is because I support more and better public goods and public services. I think government can provide useful services that are undersupplied or not supplied by the private sector that are worth taxing ourselves to pay for.

      This agenda is compromised when politicians dedicate too much tax money to retired people instead of providing useful services in the here and now. I want to see more cash compensation for workers in the present, and less deferred or in-kind benefit compensation. Politicians should have the courage to raise wages by paying more cash if they want to do that, rather than pretending they’re not giving raises, but really pushing the raises out into the future as more generous health benefits or retirement packages or whatever.

      • It’s not illegal to negotiate a new contract that rolls back the benefits of previous contracts.

        Police, fire and teachers have always had the upper hand in the public eye. Right now they don’t. Public officials need to stand up to the unions and do the right thing. Unfortunately Democrat politicians can’t do that or they’ll cut off 80% of their funding for their re-election campaigns.

        So we get nothing but higher taxes and more public “servants” (what a crock of shit that is) cashing out at 50, then getting another government job, then cashing out of that one, collecting several pensions for 30 years or so (which is longer than they worked).

        Jon, call it what it is – public employee unions are destroying government financials and the Democratic party is doing nothing about it except wanting to throw more money at it.

        You’re in your 20s, this should scare the crap out of you. in 30 years I’ll be dead and you’ll be carrying this load.

        • Jon Geeting says:

          That’s true, but how do you do that for retirees? Also, how many people are really cashing out at 50? Seriously. It’s a scare story that gets a lot of play, along with double dipping, but that’s definitely not the experience of the typical public sector employee.

          I think I’m taking the responsible line on this – public services are valuabe, but it’s not a jobs program, and we should be responsible and pay people cash while they’re working instead of backloading a bunch of in-kind benefits.

          • Retirees are off the table. As to who’s cashing in at 50, virtually every PA state police officer for one. Most local police as well. Most firemen.

            Jon, the current state program – “you can retire on full pension when you’re 50+ and have 25yrs of service” virtually guarantees people will retire.

            A great local example was when Ted Kohuth retired as PA State Police Captain of the Bethlehem barracks, at 50, then became Chief of Police up in Whitehall for 10 years. Bang, two taxpayer funded pensions and full retirement at age 60. Based on average life expectancies, taxpayers will be paying him for a combined 50 years of retirement.

            Insanity has to stop.

          • Jon Geeting says:

            That’s a bold claim. I’d like to see some evidence that “most” police officers and firemen retire at 50.

            Didn’t the state legislature just crack down on double dipping pensions, or am I misremembering that?

  5. If this wasnt a problem Jon, why is it that every major public sector tax increase has pointed to the escalating pension obligations? If it is not such a problem, why does allentown HAVE to sell its water?

    Because it is a big problem. I dont have the exact number but it was such a big problem that the majority of the police and firemen retired early to take advantage of the lopsided benefits. Public sector unions have strangled government and cut the legs out of any future growth of services from government to fund their bloated health care and pension plans. And John is right, because guys like you wont say anything because of the shill money the dems get from the unions.

    Governments should fund these pensions at what they can currently afford and as the deficit gets bigger and bigger, let the thing implode. Putting the retirement burden on the current taxpayer, when they are struggling to fund their own retirement is not right. My money should be for my family first.

    And how can i do this to retirees? Very fucking easily? Point out where it is my obligation to have my son go to school with an ever expanding class size, lack of technology growth etc, but the teachers can retire in their mid 50s? Largest growth in education spending (tax side) is to fund benefits for educators. Not in new tech, not in more teachers, not in new books, Retirement/healthcare.

    And for the 3rd time, How does allentown have a representative government when City Council is currently made up of 3 individiauls Appointed to by the Mayor? The council is deciding on a 50 year sale of a primary asset and almost half the board was not elected by the citizens

    • Jon Geeting says:

      What do you mean guys like me won’t say anything? I think I’ve made myself very clear that I’m frustrated by people who view local government as a make-work jobs program, not a service delivery organization, and that I’ll be plumping for the municipal candidates who share my views on this. I’m backing John Callahan, not Glenn Reibman, because I think he’ll get the taxpayers a better deal from the service providers. I want a Democratic Party that both affirms the importance of public services and wants to get the best deal for taxpayers in public employee contracts. The Republicans tend to pair their support for stingy contracts with anti-government views that I can’t get behind.


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