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Majority Rules is Not Enough

November 12th, 2017 by dk

We’re not a town with a lot of math majors, but learning to count larger numbers would improve our quality of life. Eugene’s leaders too often stop counting at five, except when they know four will suffice.

To take just the most recent example, renaming Ken Kesey Square garnered five Eugene City Council votes, so the motion passed and the name change was approved. North Eugene Councilor Mike Clark voted no. Councilors Greg Evans and Alan Zelenka were absent and Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis signaled her support.

The outcome was not in question, but could the council have reached unanimity? What could have swayed Clark to vote for a name change that he has opposed for a decade? Would that extra effort have been worth it?

We have undervalued the sixth, seventh and eighth votes on Eugene City Council for decades. This is not an academic exercise. Those choices have real consequences. Political factions have long memories. Each side has taken its turn dismissing the minority’s support as unnecessary. When the minority later becomes a majority, they do the same thing — partly as payback, partly from habit.

Local controversies develop a predictable pattern — returning, overturning, returning again. Keeping track of who’s in control, spinning the topic which way, can make an intent observer dizzy. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our Founding Fathers earned their capitalization when they formed the world’s first constitutional republic, precisely because they wanted to prevent “the tyranny of the majority.” Leading must be understood as more than simply winning.

Eugene could draw inspiration from Creswell, where voters thumped the prospect of reconsidering their previous vote against marijuana dispensaries. Many who had voted Yes to marijuana originally must have voted No to reconsidering that first vote’s outcome. The vote in 2016 was close. This week’s tally was not.

I don’t believe our city councils should require consensus to move forward, but that’s not to say consensus has no value. It has great value. Solutions that incorporate minority views are sturdier, more resilient, and often more creative than those that stop being refined as soon as a decisive majority has been secured.

If we had a culture where agreement was also important, the majority might continue working to find a solution that honors the dissent. In this case, what if the council offered to support some Springfield-style rules to curb panhandling downtown in return for Clark’s vote? Would that have addressed the stigma that Kesey’s name brings up for Clark and many of his constituents? More importantly, would it also have improved downtown, making it more inviting for more residents?

Eugene’s civil libertarians would argue that such concessions were not necessary in this case, though they might have agreed to them in order to win a decisive fourth council.

In sport, you don’t want to be caught running up the score when the outcome has been assured. It’s poor sportsmanship to “pile on.” But politics is not like sport, or shouldn’t be. If winning is all that matters, then losers have nothing to do except wait for their turn to be winners.

Our goal should be to throw a victory party, and everyone should feel welcome. Resolving our differences beyond the vote tally results may seem like extra effort that’s not necessary, but that’s short-sighted. More inclusive problem-solving will leave us with fewer losers and many more winners.

We’ll have energy to tackle new problems, instead of endlessly relitigating the same ones. I doubt we’re going to run out of controversies that need our attention anytime soon.

If that’s not reason enough to value more the last few votes on any decision, consider how it might attract new leaders with new skills. Political campaigns will always be reduced to votes for and votes against, but we could begin attracting leaders for whom the campaign is their least favorite part.

Let’s attract more people who can bring us together as a unified community. We say we love diversity, but we seldom go looking for it. Here’s a secret: diversity can be found most reliably among those who disagree with us.


Don Kahle ( blogs.

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