Many times in the past the residents of Lake Geneva have tried to restrict their local government’s actions. A few years ago local residents successfully elected alderpersons that decided, wrote and passed a “Big Box Ordinance,” which required the approval of a super majority of the city council to approve the building of a very large store that would change the entire appearance of the city, and threaten many local businesses. However, when that ordinance prevented the approval of a big box development, the city council-using only a simple majority-repealed that restrictive ordinance, thereby allowing a simple majority vote to approve the development.That council promptly and adroitly went right around the obvious and overwhelming will of the public.
Another attempt occurred when the citizens, using direct legislation, twice passed an ordinance that required a citizen approval referendum before the city government could spend more than a million dollars on a project. That was successful until the citizens voted down the 7- million-dollar City Parking Garage using a referendum. The city council, in angry retaliation, amended the offending ordinance, and made it toothless by exempting infrastructure and city commitments from restrictions. In 2005 the previously passed city ordinance that limited the city government to 50% of the lake front and parking revenues, was quietly codified out of existence by the city council. With a simple resolution they transferred those funds into the city’s general fund.
What happened to the public?
It went deeper in debt. What can be done to restrain representative local governments from acting with complete autonomy? Other than recalling elected city officials, or replacing them at the next election, there is little that can be done to restrain city officials, except for making them adhere to state and federal laws which supercede their authority. However, there is one underused approach; the ‘referendum.’ It could be required that changing or amending something as vital as the comprehensive plan would be subject to a referendum vote of the electorate, in a manner that is similar to making changes in the city’s charter ordinance. This returns the ultimate control of the city’s future back to the residents of the community. The Geneva Shore Report will be looking into how to make such binding referendums more easily available, inexpensive to implement, and hopefully much more pervasive.