Is it better to be governed by a democracy or by an aristocracy?

To most Americans, that may seem an easy question. We have been schooled on the Jeffersonian notion that political liberty should wipe out class differences.Still, the question took center stage last week in the Salt Lake City Council and, while democracy won out, the race was disturbingly close.

The council had to decide when to hold a public vote on an $85 million bond, which, if passed, would raise property taxes considerably. The figure bandied about is $43.50 in additional taxes per year on a house valued at $150,000. The question confronting the council was simple: Should the vote be held on Aug. 4, during the height of vacation season, or should it be held in conjunction with the general election on Nov. 3, when voter turnout is relatively high and a lot of issues share the ballot?

Originally, council members decided on Aug. 4. Then, last week, they reversed themselves. As of this moment, the vote is scheduled for Nov. 3.

The bond would build a new main city library. It also would begin the first phase of a complete makeover of the block just east of the City-County Building. The jail and court buildings that now sit there would be demolished, and the new library would be joined eventually by a museum, shops, apartments and offices.

While they ended up making the right decision, the council's wavering is worth noting.

Webster defines an aristocracy as government by a "minority considered to be best qualified." With that in mind, read what Councilman Bryce Jolley originally gave as his reasoning for supporting an Aug. 4 vote: "Oft-times, in a general election, there are some voters who are unclear about various issues and walk into the voting booth and say, `Oh, tax increase - nope, nope, nope.' We want a more-educated voting populace."

In other words, people who are educated are more likely to vote in favor of the bond, at least in the councilman's view. And since special elections in the summer can be expected to attract 10 percent or less of the voting public, an August vote would give the bond a much better chance of passing. Of course, any registered voter could participate, but the fact is the turnout would be far less than the 50 percent or so who show up in November, when presumably even "stupid" people cast ballots.

Given that line of reasoning, the better approach would have been to hold the election at five minutes past midnight on a Sunday and to tell only a select group of well-informed people about it.

The only trouble is this tax increase, if it passes, will be levied on the uneducated as well as the educated. Add to that the fact that a special election would have cost the city $59,842 to hold - a fact that got little notice.

I raise the issue not to berate the City Council. Even Jolley ended up with a change of heart, and the final vote was unanimous in favor of the November election. All seven council members deserve praise. Instead, I raise it because this attitude - that some issues are too important to entrust to the public - seems to be gaining momentum.

Another ballot measure is scheduled for a statewide vote in November. That one would change the state constitution so that any public initiative on a wildlife issue would require a two-thirds majority to pass. All other initiatives would still need only a simple majority.

Why should wildlife matters meet a stricter standard? Because some wildlife and hunting advocates believe their issues are too important to be entrusted to the public the way everything else is.

Are we really becoming this cynical about the public's ability to govern itself? Are we not still, as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address, a government "of the people, by the people, for the people"?

Philosophically, I'm right behind the folks who want a new library. Free civilizations can't function right unless their citizens are educated and informed, and a library sends the message that all people, rich and poor, can share in that information. But that message is muddled if some segments of the city are forced into supporting the library by fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters. Likewise, an amendment that treats wildlife issues differently than everything else would be an insult to every citizen of the state.

The bottom line is that people should not underestimate the intelligence of the electorate. A case in point is the arts and recreation tax, a $50 million bond that Salt Lake County voters approved in last year's general election. People don't always reject tax increases out of hand.

Supporters of a new Salt Lake City library have until Nov. 3 to argue their case to the voters who, in turn, have the right to study the issue and ask questions. Thank goodness. That is how things should be in a democracy.