I know, there’s a catchy title this week…
Democracy is messy. I’ve lost count of the number of times Wake County Commissioner James West has said that phrase since I became a part of the county’s staff. West said it once again on June 18th, 2018 as he explained his coming “Nay” vote towards the proposed purchase of Crooked Creek Golf Course. That moment and the vote that followed it were the latest chapter in a hotly contentious topic that splintered the Wake Board of Commissioners in a way that makes it somewhat shocking they were all elected from the same party. When the dust had settled, the motion to buy the course passed with a 4-3 vote; you can recap the vote itself in this article from the News & Observer and review the politics of the project in this article from Indy Week.
Competition between values inevitably lead to conflicts like the ones that surrounded Crooked Crook’s purchase. Wake County’s bustling growth and breadth of viable options do not make the values competition in Crooked Creek a “wicked” problem per se, but it did make it a prioritization one. I became interested in budgeting because of debates like these; I fully believe you can understand what a community cares the most about based on where it spends its money. Having a hand in where that money goes, I argue, is a power that spans further than almost any other in government. Seeing that play out in the Crooked Creek debate opened my eyes to two things that my a priori beliefs in budgeting miss.
The first is, where these debates occur. I said it in my Budget Adoption post (affectionately entitled Finish Line) and I’ll say it again: over 97% of the staff’s recommendations were not contentious. They were either silently accepted or lauded by the elected officials and public alike. The debates occurred in highly specified areas, with deeply entrenched decision-makers on either side. These debates are, quite frankly, on the margins of fiscal policy. They were on the final 3-cents; that surprises me.
The second is that, well, democracy is messy. That one probably doesn’t need explanation.