A Lesson in Democracy

Wow. Regardless of what side you were on, the voter turnout in Derry’s special election Oct. 13 was remarkable. And those numbers prove that democracy still works. Fire people up about a matter close to their hearts and they’ll take the time to head to the polls.

Derry residents signed petitions in numbers large enough to require a referendum election. And when the majority of the Town Council refused to honor that request, residents put their money where their mouths are, took the Council to court – and won – and an election was scheduled. Then they – and those on the other side – turned out in large numbers to make their views count.

Every one of the voters deserves appreciation. As jaded as national politics has made us, this election, which went to the heart of “local,” gave us a look at democracy in action.

Bottom line for this election is that it’s vitally important in a democracy to listen to the will of the people and to pay attention to what they have to say – not shut them out, order police to haul them off, or take for granted that a commitment to cut the budget gives carte blanche to cutting whatever you personally want, without citizen input.

The questions were not so much whether to reduce the budget, but whether police, fire, public works and human resources services were what should be cut.  And what was lost sight of – over and over – was that even with all eight referendum questions approved by voters, the Derry tax rate is still less than last year. So the promise to cut taxes was still honored.

Voters said they didn’t want the cuts to stand. But we think the turnout had a twofold message. Residents did not like the added response time for emergency fire and medical calls, the fewer police in action, the extended time to plow streets that the cuts imposed. And we think they also vehemently disapproved of how the Council conducted itself over the past few months – shutting out resident comment, restricting opportunities for opposing councilors to speak, directing the police to remove irate residents from meetings.

It’s hard to imagine that the Council didn’t expect its repeated shutting down of comments to lead to anger, and while that’s no excuse for rudeness, there’s also no excuse for keeping public comment to a minimum.

While it ended up taking thousands of taxpayer dollars, the election finally gave Derry voters their rightful chance to be heard. We hope the lesson is learned, and won’t have to be repeated.

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