Charleston has a city council because it is the fairest and most straightforward way to ensure that the city’s more than 130,000 residents can have a voice in our governance without directly voting on each of the dozens of issues on each council agenda.
Twelve council members and the mayor can be reasonably expected to educate themselves on the city’s needs, consider different perspectives, have productive discussions about controversial topics and make difficult choices in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a direct democracy.
In rare instances, such as when large amounts of public money are involved, it makes sense to ask voters to weigh in on a decision via a referendum.
But a modest change in the city building code that would make Charleston much better prepared to handle sea level rise and stronger storms is not one of those instances.
So it’s disappointing that City Council is moving forward Thursday with an effort to ask voters whether to raise the minimum freeboard requirement — the distance the base of a house must be above the federally designated flood line — from 1 foot to 2.
The advantages of a higher freeboard requirement are obvious.
New homes would be built with extra protection against flooding. Homes significantly damaged by water would be required to be rebuilt in a way that makes future problems less likely. Homeowners citywide would likely get a break on their flood insurance premiums.
The marginal cost vulnerable homeowners might incur by having to raise their homes an extra foot after a devastating flood would almost certainly be outweighed by the personal and public benefits of working toward a more resilient city.
But instead of passing this sensible reform, City Council has wavered back and forth for months while discussing “what if” scenarios — a home destroyed by a fire would still have to be built back under the tougher flood rules, for example — that distract from the core issue.
In the meantime, new homes are constantly being constructed under the existing freeboard rules, leaving future homeowners vulnerable to both floodwaters and the costs associated with raising a house that could have much more easily been built a foot higher to begin with.
To be sure, there are technicalities that will need to be ironed out before finalizing an increase in the minimum freeboard. It’s important that techniques to meet the new requirements — such as using fill dirt underneath a foundation — don’t exacerbate flooding issues for neighbors.
These concerns make the freeboard issue an even less ideal subject for a referendum, however. Finding a fair and intelligible way to word the question succinctly would be a challenge. Sufficiently educating voters on an issue that could have a profound impact on their lives and livelihoods would be tough as well.
And the fact that the referendum would be nonbinding makes the whole matter an even more futile endeavor.
It’s less an opportunity for voters to weigh in than a chance for City Council to avoid taking a stand in a way that could cause temporary hardship for a few people in service of a safer, more prosperous future for all Charleston residents.
That’s not an easy choice to make. But it’s one that our city leaders ought to have the courage to make rather than asking Charleston voters to make it for them.