Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Let the public vote on the Olympics

The proposed beach volleyball venue on Boston Common is seen in this rendering.

Boston 2024

The proposed beach volleyball venue on Boston Common is seen in this rendering.

A WORD to the wise.

No, actually, make that, a hint for the hardheaded.

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That is, the pro-Boston Olympics camp.

One way or another, the odds are very good that there will be a public vote on holding the 2024 Summer Games here. Although Boston 2024 has assured the US Olympic Committee that “Boston is overwhelmingly united in its bid,” polling doesn’t really show that level of support among either city or state residents. A majority are in favor, provided no public dollars are used, but not a strong majority.

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Significantly, in a new WBUR poll, 75 percent of Boston-area residents said they wanted the matter put to a public vote. Mayor Marty Walsh has moved from a no-referendum stand to saying he wouldn’t try to prevent one.

And several groups ranging from Boston Olympics skeptics to outright opponents are exploring ways to put the matter on the ballot at the state or local level.

Here’s the real question: Will the vote come sooner — that is, this fall — or later, when it could toss more of a monkey wrench into Olympics planning?

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Now, it’s obvious that Boston 2024 doesn’t want a public vote at all.

Indeed, at its Wednesday press conference, the group’s president, Dan O’Connell, even seemed to suggest that a no vote wouldn’t necessarily derail the bid. The language of such a referendum would be critical, he noted.

O’Connell didn’t elaborate, but that may mean that passage of a ballot question ruling out the use of state or local dollars wouldn’t be a death knell for a privately funded Olympics.

Still, given the inevitable effects the Olympics would have on Boston — from prioritizing infrastructure spending on Games-related improvements to traffic delays to heightened security — voters should have a say on the fundamental question of whether to play host as well.

So how could that happen?

One person determined to push the issue is Evan Falchuk, founder of the new United Independent Party. At public meetings to pitch his party, voters have had persistent questions about the Olympics effort, he says.

“People are saying, ‘We should be voting on this thing,’ ” Falchuk reports. “And they are struck by the fact that they don’t hear people from the other parties saying that.”

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Falchuk is eyeing a question aimed at the November 2016 statewide ballot forbidding the state from spending any public money for the Olympics. Whether the passage of such a question would kill the Olympics effort could depend on how public or taxpayers dollars were defined.

On that matter, Boston 2024 insists the Olympics operating budget wouldn’t use taxpayer dollars. But that declaration is based on a concept, not a concrete plan, for financing.

Organizers envision a quasi-public agency, with bonding authority, to undertake much of the Olympics-related construction. However, it remains to be seen whether such an agency can be established without expending public money or having the state somehow backstop its debt.

An easier way to let the public vote would be local ballot questions.

That would mean a vote in Boston and probably also one in Cambridge, where the City Council has instructed the city not to spend any time or resources on the Olympics bid. Those questions could come either as legally binding ballot measures or advisory ones.

The process for the first is cumbersome, requiring a city home-rule-petition to be passed as a law on Beacon Hill before the matter could appear as a binding question on the local ballots.

It would be much easier for the two city governments simply to put the questions on their ballots as advisory matters, with all the relevant political actors, as well as Boston 2024 and any successor organization, agreeing that if voters said no, they would honor that decision.

Under that scenario, Boston 2024 would have a half-year or more to explain its plan; come fall, voters would have their say via the ballot. If the pro-Olympics side won, they could then rightly say that those who cared enough to vote wanted to host the Games.

And if voters said no to the Olympics bid? A rejection in Cambridge might simply mean relocating some planned events.

A loss in Boston, on the other hand, would be fatal. But surely not even the biggest Olympics booster would argue that the Games should be imposed on a city that doesn’t want them.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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