The spectacular failure of the ambitious downtown streetcar plan will be studied in political science classes for years as an example of what happens when people in government, in both elected and appointed positions, fail to listen to the people, experts tell Newsradio 1200 WOAI.
"People are going to remember this one for a long time," said Dr. Francine Romero, Associate Dean of the Department of Public Policy at UTSA.
She and other experts say there were a number of fumbles along the way in the battle over the streetcar, but the message to elected officials and other government agencies will be...listen to the people or face the consequences.
"Don't ever underestimate the public's ability to understand details," she said. "I think people are hungry about that."
She says frequently, public officials see few citizens coming forward and appearing at public hearings, and they get the impression that the public is uninterested, and take that as 'permission' to push through their own plans. Romero says the streetcar debacle proves that is a dangerous strategy.
"In some cases, the public can very quickly and actively get engaged," she said. "You simply cannot ignore that."
Romero and other observers say another problem is that the dysfunction of today's political system frequently gives politician a 'free pass' to ignore the public. It is a lot easier for a government official to dismiss critics as 'just Teabaggers' or 'just Demo-rats' or whatever pejorative plays with their base, and avoid having to deal with the root cause of the public anger. Romero says all too often, people who support the controversial project will enable that tactic, further enabling the politician or governmental agency to justify ignoring the public. That’s essentially what happened for months in the streetcar debate.
"What the people were saying on the streetcar is, we just need more facts, we don't understand completely how this is going to work."
Romero compared the embarrassing failure of the streetcar plan, which will color the actions of politicians and governmental groups for years to come, with the example of Mayor Henry Cisneros. When he was faced with opposition to the Alamodome project in the late 1980s, rather than ignoring or dismissing the critics, Cisneros waded into the field, and, in dozens meetings and sessions with any voters who would listen, he convinced skeptics to support the plan and won a victory in the Alamodome election in 1989.
"I don't think we had a Henry Cisneros like figure this time, going and selling this to people," she said.