Last spring, Aransas County voters defeated a proposal to create a county Groundwater Commission by a vote of 8 to 1. The proposed Commission's directors continued to hold public meetings, which a number of citizens dutifully attended, continuing to express concerns and reservations though they seemed to be falling on deaf ears; the directors held out the hope of submitting their issue to yet another public election. More than half a year later, the Commission's directors finally listened to their public and have tendered their resignations to the County Commissioners.
This is the right result, but I want to make a point about how it happened. Lots of us showed up at tedious meetings and read tedious documents to try to understand what the County Commissioners were proposing for us and why. We got the word out to voters before the election at a time when there was practically no other information circulating publicly about what the proposed Commission was about and what kinds of powers it might have. While we were doing it, we complained among ourselves that our elected leaders weren't telling us what we needed to know and weren't listening to us. We all agreed it was no fun spending our evenings in public meetings. We certainly didn't feel like running for office ourselves!
Most of us won't ever run for public office. There is one thing we can do, though, as responsible voters. We can set our voting default switch to "no." Does that sound negative? Well, it is, but in a good way. If our elected leaders have to submit something to a public vote before they have the power to enact, we should be thinking, "There's a good reason for that." If it were routine and unimportant, they wouldn't have to ask us. If we don't know exactly what they're proposing and why it's a good idea, we shouldn't be writing a blank check just so we won't have to feel "negative."
Nor is it the voter's job to track down a county official, back him up against a wall, and interrogate him. If a proposal is important enough to hold an election for, there should have been lots of public discussion about it. Not just a couple of articles in the newspaper, but real discussion that got real people invested in the notion, so they'd talk to their neighbors and get them on board, too. Meetings, letters to the editor, social media, the whole nine yards.
We should all be thinking about this the next time the County puts a bond proposal out for our vote. Do you know why they need to borrow more money? Do you understand what they want to spend it on? If not, that's a good time to vote "no." Maybe the next time a County Commissioner wants to hold an election to get you to sign off on something, he'll know he has a lot of preliminary work to do first, getting the public to make an informed decision about it. Elections are a lot of trouble and expense. They shouldn't be called if they're not important enough to get our support for them. But no one's going to bother to convince you of much if you've made it clear you'll instinctively vote "yes." That's called being taken for granted, and it's no way to keep your government limited.
People who don't govern themselves get governed. You can't count on government just to "leave you alone" if you don't consistently stand up for yourself.The chairman of the proposed commission's chairman's letter of resignation was a real piece of work: a petulant screed about the unwillingness of the public to be educated about his unimpeachable mission. These guys hid behind the Open Meetings Act to argue that they couldn't discuss anything with us at public meetings, because it wasn't on the agenda. And it wouldn't be on the next agenda, either, or the one after that, but they never gave up on the excuse. I was gratified to see the depth of the public revulsion over these tactics, but I still thought I should publish my letter, because the voters of this county tend to rubber-stamp every bond proposal the County Commissioners or the school board throws out there. It's such a dangerous habit of complaisance.
The odd thing is, a Groundwater Commission is something it wouldn't normally be that hard to get me to support. Despite my skepticism of central-government solutions, protecting an aquifer is one of those areas that seems tailor-made for an exception. In this case, though, the facts just didn't add up. Our aquifer is a belt of below-sea-level sand in a coastal county. To the extent its borders can be defined at all, they don't extend beyond our county boundaries. The state environmental commission considers our risk of groundwater contamination, overharvesting, and subsidence minimal. The water is so meager and brackish that it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to fear a water company's plan to sink a huge, thirsty well to sell our water to the distant city of Lubbock and run all the neighbors' wells dry in the process.
On the other hand, many of us could quite easily imagine how unpleasant a little board of self-righteous, thin-skinned tinpot dictators could be once they got the power to tax us, hire a bunch of consultants, start metering our wells, and dream up new groundwater extraction rules for our own good. They did say they planned to protect household wells with grandfathering provisions, but frankly they lost all credibility after the first meeting or two. Then, after they were ground into the dirt in last spring's election, they sealed their fate by announcing superciliously that they planned to hold another election in a year or so instead of packing up and going home. At this point, you'd be hard-pressed to find a citizen of this county who supports their proposal to regulate the groundwater. I'm pretty sure the one voter out of nine who supported them last spring amounted to themselves, their families, and their office staff.