“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;…whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” –Thomas Jefferson
When the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) was first organized in the early 1990s, these words of our 3rd president were printed on every newsletter and virtually every correspondence.
The results from the recent Rome City Commission election are a testament to Jefferson’s words. In a day when citizens often feel powerless in the face of corporate lobbying and spending on election campaigns both big and small, a small group of dedicated citizens called Save Rome’s Central Park (SRCP) changed the outcome of our local election.
The stated goal of this group was to elect the three challengers and to send a message to the incumbent commissioners by encouraging citizens to withhold their votes for these public servants.
The results—whether you agreed or disagreed with the effort to save Rome’s “Central Park” or approved or disapproved of the group’s strategy and tactics—showed that democracy is alive and well in our town.
Voter turnout, while still abysmal overall, was twice the turnout in surrounding communities. Of the 16,098 votes that could have been cast (each of the 2,683 citizens that cast ballots could vote for six candidates), only 6,357 went to the five incumbents (39.5 percent). The three challengers received 4,562 votes, and two of them were elected garnering more votes than any of the incumbents. Meanwhile, 5,179 votes were withheld. Assuming that all of those votes were votes of “no confidence” for incumbents, that means 60.5 percent of the “votes” cast were anti-incumbent votes. Had the SRCP group had more challengers to support, it’s not a stretch to say that we would have elected even more new commissioners.
This election became a referendum on the controversial issue of what to do with the 80 acres of city-owned land along Riverside Parkway and opposite Ridge Ferry Park. The incumbents that were up for reelection have steadfastly supported the conversion of this floodplain and wetlands into a strip mall development called “City Center.”
While CRBI hosted a candidates’ forum that touched on a broad range of issues, CRBI did not advocate for or against any candidates in this election. In fact, federal laws prohibit non-profit organizations like CRBI from engaging in such activity.
That said, CRBI has worked for eight years to educate Rome’s citizens and its elected officials about the problems with the proposed project. Filling in floodplain and wetlands is always a bad idea for the health of our rivers; it’s an especially bad idea when the property could be preserved to create what could be Rome’s “Central Park.”
More often than not over the past eight years, many Commissioners dismissed CRBI’s protests as merely the grumblings of a tiny minority, confident that a majority of Romans supported the City Center development. With these election results, the Commission can no longer realistically have that confidence.
A broad base of citizens supported the SRCP effort—conservative, liberal, black, white, young, old, business owners, waitresses, teachers etc. News flash: there’s not enough river-loving environmentalists in Rome to deliver these kind of results.
CRBI will continue to work with the new Rome City Commission to secure the best possible outcome for this property. Whatever is done, be it preserved or developed, the plan chosen should be one that protects our rivers, preserves our floodplain, addresses any pollution issues associated with the old city landfill and—most importantly—reflects the will of Rome’s citizens.
The recent election made it abundantly clear what that will is.