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Civilization Requires More Than Majority Rules

September 21st, 2012 by dk

As the world gets more connected, you can never be sure who might be watching. Rioting mobs in the Middle East are protesting a youtube video they consider blasphemous. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was caught on tape speaking inelegantly about class warfare in the United States.

So let me point you to a video that shows our “better selves,” as one local leader described it. On March 9, 2011, the Eugene City Council met in a work session. Their published agenda concerned one matter related to the Envision Eugene process and two decisions about the west Eugene extension of EmX.

Pointing the way forward for civilization was not on the agenda, but sometimes things go better than we plan.

Envision Eugene earned plaudits from all corners, and then they turned to EmX.

Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz recommended that the council first address the bus rapid transit system itself, removing the so-called “no build” option from further council consideration. In his words, he believed the entire community would benefit from a clear direction from the city’s leaders.

The second matter to be addressed had attracted the most controversy. The council was being asked to indicate their support for one west Eugene alignment over all others.

Mayor Kitty Piercy introduced the EmX topics, gently reminding councilors that federal agencies were “aware and watching” their moves that day. More about that in a moment.

The first vote was close, and the discussion hit many dissenting points. Councilor Mike Clark argued that the process needs more time, as evidenced by the protest signs along the West 11th corridor.

After much discussion, the council voted to endorse the transit system extension 5-4, with the mayor breaking the tie. So far, everything was going how watchers had expected.

Everyone held their breath for what was to come next. Should EmX take the most direct and economical route along 11th and 13th, or jog north a few blocks to Sixth and Seventh, to avoid disrupting a residential neighborhood?

Three of the first four comments from city councilors pointed toward another close vote, but then something important happened.

Councilor Clark, who had voted against removing the no-build option, surprised everyone in the room. After noting that he had advocated extending the decision-making process for an additional year, he acknowledged his preferred course of action hadn’t gained a majority of his colleagues’ votes.

Then he said, “The decision of the majority of the council is the will of the body. And I accept that.” He then stated he would vote in favor of the Sixth-Seventh alignment.

Every other councilor spoke once more after that and then they voted. It was unanimous.

Clark and the others knew what the mayor had hinted at in the beginning. Although they were choosing a “locally preferred alternative,” the money to build EmX would come from the United States Congress and the Federal Transportation Authority. Washington D.C. favors localities with a unified voice.

Without any speeches, the Eugene City Council offered an important civics lesson that afternoon. We were all aware that federal agencies are “aware and watching.” But now I wish the video of that work session could reach the Middle East.

We were reminded that day that freedom and democracy are not ends in themselves. They are tools to build a better civilization. Absolute freedom cannot be distinguished from anarchy. And if all you have is democracy, you get a tyranny of the majority, which is nothing more than scripted thuggery.

In a civilized society, the minority must accept responsibility for improving something they failed to stop. The majority must recognize that carefully listening to dissent will improve every outcome. Both sides do well to remember they’re likely to be in the other’s shoes next time around.

Winners shouldn’t gloat and losers shouldn’t sulk, because we all share a single future. Our fate unites us, long after our opinions and our votes did not.

Councilor Clark modeled that 18 months ago. He voted against something. Then, five minutes later, he led the brigade for the best available alternative.


Watch the March 9, 2011 Eugene City Council work session here3/9/11.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at Kahle serves on the board of directors for Better Eugene-Springfield Transit, a new organization formed to advocate for better transit solutions and EmX in particular. (

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