In 2011, Dr. Brian Wampler and a team of researchers from Boise State University studied COMPASS public involvement activities to look at public participation in regional planning. Dr. Wampler’s work centers on the idea of using “participatory democracy” in addition to “representative democracy” to better involve the public in government decisions. In participatory democracy, citizens have an actual vote on issues brought before them. Bond elections are an example of this, where citizens vote to tax themselves (or not) for a specific purpose.

In a representative democracy, citizens elect other citizens to represent them on councils, commissions, etc. Citizens can provide input to their elected officials, but they do not have a direct vote on the issues.

The Community Planning Association, or COMPASS, is governed by a Board of Directors. Twenty-seven of the 32 voting members are local elected officials — mayors, city councilmembers and county and highway district commissioners. Their job on the COMPASS Board is to allocate federal transportation dollars in Ada and Canyon Counties through long-term and short-term planning and budgeting. Board members educate themselves on the issues, weigh pros and cons for their constituents and the region as a whole and consider input from the public before making decisions.This post is a response to Wampler’s recent article in The Blue Review.

COMPASS is a representative democracy. As Dr. Wampler points out, “[c]itizens are not empowered to directly decide what COMPASS should do.” This is true. Decision-making authority is delegated to the elected officials citizens voted for, just as is the case for everything from a school board to the state legislature to the President of the United States.

Dr. Wampler offers suggestions to provide citizens with a more direct say in COMPASS decisions — toward a more participatory democracy.

COMPASS always strives to engage as many citizens as possible, from all walks of life, in COMPASS plans and programs, so the idea of citizens becoming more directly involved in how their tax dollars are spent on their transportation infrastructure is appealing, but is a participatory democracy realistic, and equally compelling to ask: is it better?

One idea Dr. Wampler suggests is allowing citizens to vote on COMPASS decisions. In 2012, the COMPASS Board voted on more than 25 different items. Would that equate to 25 different issues at the ballot box? Even if public voting was restricted only to those items where COMPASS is required to solicit public input, there would still have been five votes in 2012. Taking an issue to the polls is expensive. Would that be the best use of limited public dollars? Would it be an efficient way to make decisions on an ongoing basis?

In 2012, the public was invited to share its views on those issues through a variety of methods — people could comment online, at libraries, via email, via letter or fax, at open houses, at booths at public events, at public presentations and at day-long workshops. All of that feedback was shared with the COMPASS Board, which weighed public opinion prior to making any decisions. I’m not convinced that turning these items over to a vote of the people would increase participation, as a public vote only allows for one way of providing input.

Another option Dr. Wampler suggests is inviting “representative samples of citizens” to participate instead of opening a vote to all citizens. These citizens would (theoretically) represent other citizens — a representative democracy, but with more players. The COMPASS Board is already composed of “representative citizens” — local elected officials. These representatives have been chosen by a vote of the people to represent their jurisdictions. Adding additional “representative citizens” raises many questions: Would a broader group of citizens be more “representative” than local elected officials? How would they be chosen? How would we ensure they are truly representative? Would they consider the views of the people they represent? What if they don’t?

I find Dr. Wampler’s ideas interesting and thought-provoking. His research has provided me and my staff with data and incentive to continue our quest to constantly improve our efforts to ensure all voices are heard and considered. However, putting Dr. Wampler’s “participatory democracy” theories into practice at COMPASS poses many practical obstacles that would be difficult to overcome and would not necessarily yield better public input.

COMPASS proudly serves the citizens of Ada and Canyon Counties as a representative democracy and will continue to do so.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.