Tuesday, September 21, 2004
About 600 BC, Athens faced a crisis that must have seemed insurmountable. A local agricultural crisis had helped plunge the community into an economic and political tailspin. Only when the polity gave control of their future to the trusted Solon was Athens able to avoid immediate calamity and forge the foundations for its future democracy.
Like Athens, Steamboat Springs faces a similar crisis, spurred by growth and manifested in the public squabbling about the future location of the justice center. Steamboat Springs' political culture, like that of ancient Athens, may have run aground. As Aristotle and Plato noted, for the polis to be effective, everyone must know each other and participate. As a community grows, intimate politics become ineffective. The old democratic system of government withers, so a more effective republican form can take its place. Unable to pace -- let alone control -- the rate of growth and change, it may be time for Steamboat Springs to consider its political future.
In the best interests of the community, the Friends of the Justice Center needs to bow out of the process. No doubt James Madison had it right when he warned our fledgling republic against a favored class of "tyrannical nobles" who would try to corrupt our form of government for their own ends. The tyranny here, of course, comes from the self-anointed "friends," a title that implies their opponents are somehow undemocratic enemies of justice. Their reasoning is political sophistry.
Instead of being a citizens group counseling responsible government, the "friends" have become the tyrannical nobles, serving as a stalking horse for select central Lincoln Avenue business owners who may think they don't have the influence they deserve over the county's elected officials. What should have been a legitimate exercise in local governance has become an unnecessary public spectacle.
The real debate isn't about larger offices for lawyers or the design of a parking garage. The real issue is about who will govern the community -- the elected officials or a special interest group, more concerned with seizing the initiative from our elected county officials and inappropriately influencing and subverting the legitimate political process in the bargain.
Playing the role of a hectoring bully, the "friends" have been nothing short of divisive. They have embarked on what can only be seen by the county commissioners as a larger endeavor to threaten the local political landscape. No one should be surprised at the commissioners' less than enthusiastic response.
The decision rightly belongs with the elected county commissioners. Adam Smith, the oft-quoted 18th century philosopher and economist, observed that people in a civil society often have better things to do than constantly govern themselves, so they instead elect representatives to do that for them. In this instance, the commissioners represent the entire county and not just Steamboat Springs. Downtown Steamboat is not entitled to the new justice center and the placement of the center should not be a test of political will. The commissioners cannot submit to the tyranny of the nobles but should instead exercise their authority as responsibly elected community leaders.