Monday, December 9, 2013

Can’t We at Least Ask the Question?

The City of Petaluma recently commissioned a telephone poll.  The goal was to gather information about a sales tax measure that the City Council may place on the November 2014 ballot.  I’m fine with the concept of the poll.

I don’t know if people give honest responses to polls like this.  I suspect that a generous concern for the common good expressed to a polltaker may convert into penuriousness once inside the voting booth.  But I don’t know how else a city can begin to take the temperature of the electorate.

However, I’m disappointed that the polling questions stopped where they did.

The questions about services to be funded, alternative sales tax increments, and duration of the tax were all appropriate.

But doesn’t it seem that the poll would have been the perfect opportunity to ask about removing institutional barriers to urbanism, a land use alternative that is less expensive to maintain, reducing the need for future tax increases?

Not asking it was akin to going to the bank for a loan to host your eighth keg party of the month and not having your banker suggest that you might want to adjust your lifestyle.

I’m not sufficiently naïve to believe that simply asking a question about voter interest in urbanism would have immediately changed the course of Petaluma history.  But it might have begun a dialogue that would have been both fact-based and achingly appropriate.

Nor is Petaluma the only place where the dialogue is needed.  Many cities seem to have financial projections for the next decade and beyond that are just as bad or worse than Petaluma’s.  And yet we struggle to begin the conversation about alternatives.

For the record, I wasn’t one of the people polled for the ballot measure.  But I expect to support any ballot measure that the City Council may be put forth.  I may be disappointed at how much infrastructure we’ve accumulated, but believe that it’s nonetheless our responsibility to maintain that infrastructure for the generations that will follow.  Just as it’s our responsibility to find a way to live good lives with less infrastructure, so those generations aren’t as overburdened as we are.

(I might have questioned whether a sales tax is the appropriate mechanism for raising additional revenue, but that topic is getting a bit far afield from urbanism.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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