Letters Dept.: Is Direct Democracy the Ideal?

In her March article in the Pecan Press (“Invitation to Direct Democracy”), Lorre Weidlich states that “direct democracy can be a disconcerting business.”  I agree with that view, but unfortunately she glosses over its real, and deeper problems.

All democratic processes will find it challenging to satisfy the three conditions James Fishkin’s lays out as necessary for real democracy: deliberation, participation, and equality at the same time. HPNA‘s direct democracy seems to me to fall short on the latter two conditions.

First, Hyde Park has thousands of residents (in addition to business and non-resident property owners) who are affected by HPNA decisions, and so widespread participation using face-to-face meetings is an almost impossible task. This could be addressed somewhat by technology, but it would require that the organization be open to change and be determined to do the work needed to overcome such a challenge.

And second, because the votes and deliberations are taken only at monthly meetings, those with commitments to family and work (or indisposed for whatever reason) have a less equal chance of having their views taken into account. It does not necessarily mean that these individuals do not care about what gets voted on at HPNA. To take the ADU issue as an example, when the Contact Team offered the opportunity to take an online survey on ADUs or when Friends of Hyde Park sponsored an online ADU vote, people cared enough to register their opinions on the issue in significantly greater numbers than voted in person at an HPNA meeting.

Further, the lack of renters and non-resident property owners in HPNA also speaks to its lack of equality. The first group represents 80% of the residents, but only a small fraction of the HPNA voters; and the second group commands a significant share of Hyde Park property values (apartments, churches, businesses) but are not even allowed to vote.

The reason that participation and equality are important, and that this is not just a tempest in a teapot, is that the positions of HPNA are relayed to the city as the voice of “the neighborhood,” with the intent of influencing city officials. It could be said to exercise power in other ways also. For example, anyone seeking a variance from the city is asked whether they have talked to “the neighborhood,” when what is meant is whether they have talked to HPNA.

No one is arguing that HPNA is a not a democracy for those who show up at meetings, but it would be hard to argue against the view that more participation and equality would make HPNA a more democratic and responsive neighborhood organization. In looking to the future, I would hope that it becomes less self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, and more self-critical, acknowledging its shortcomings and working diligently to pursue the voices of more if not all neighborhood stakeholders.

–Matt Desloge

Avenue G