Although some local residents will be disappointed, Douglas County commissioners were right to turn down a proposed referendum for the November ballot.
A similar response also would be appropriate for a referendum on Tuesday's Lawrence City Commission agenda.
The measure considered by county commissioners last week would have sought public input on whether the South Lawrence Trafficway should be completed on the 32nd Street route and whether senior citizens should receive some sort of break on their residential property taxes. Most people in the area probably have an opinion on both of those issues, but scheduling a nonbinding public vote on the matters serves little purpose.
County commissioners, who were unanimous in rejecting the referendum, provided sound reasoning for their decision. Public officials are elected to consider complex issues such as these and come to reasoned decisions on behalf of voters. As Commissioner Charles Jones noted, "a referendum has a way of flattening complex issues," which gives such a vote limited validity as a decision-making tool.
The SLT referendum would give voters a chance to vote "yes" or "no" but it wouldn't give them a chance to qualify their votes or express what other option they might prefer. Such a vote might be used to support one position or another in the continuing battle over the SLT, but it wouldn't offer a very accurate picture of what voters really want.
The property tax referendum has the added complication of proposing something that commissioners said wasn't even allowed under the state's constitution. Voting on such a question might give residents a chance to vent their anger but would have no practical impact.
The same might be said of a referendum scheduled to be considered at Tuesday's City Commission meeting and, perhaps, at a future meeting of the County Commission. That referendum, proposed by the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice, would provide local residents an opportunity to express their displeasure with the U.S. military action in Iraq and call for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from that country.
It's another example of a referendum that may allow someone to vent but will have little practical impact. It also "flattens" the complex issue of Iraq, which many people believe can't be reduced to a yes-or-no question.
Referendums can have practical uses in guiding government actions, but none of those being proposed in Lawrence right now seem to fit into that category. Officials should politely reject them and move on to more important matters.