Kevin Hoover: Public Involvement, So Crucial And So Stupidly Disregarded – September 17, 2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

There’s something not happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. That is, if it’s anything at all.

As you know from the “Then and Now” series of photos in the Eye’s pages, Arcata is always changing in ways large and small, blatant and subtle, but also visual and invisible.

Over the last several years, we’ve had a fall-off in opinion submissions at the paper. We used to have far more letters to the editor than we could fit into two or even three “Opinion” pages. These days, we can easily get by with one, and some weeks there aren’t even any letters to the editor other than cranks and identity-theft sexpots. Maybe we’re satisfying our expressive needs on Facebook, saying “LOL!!!!!!!!” to pics of kittens in hampers, or anonymously calling people Nazis on blogs, I don’t know.

Further, we, as a town, didn’t manage to generate any ballot choices for City Council other than the three incumbents and any possible write-ins (Valerie Rose-Campbell is trying, but even if she succeeds, she’ll be at a structural disadvantage).

In the near term, that’s OK in that the three incumbents, Mayor Michael Winkler, Vice Mayor Shane Brinton and Councilmember Susan Ornelas are functioning fairly well. There’s been a measurable maturation of this council and its individual members, they’re doing the work and they aren’t stale yet.

At the same time, the City’s many citizen volunteer committees and commissions boast numerous high-functioning members who would have made fine candidates. They know procedure and attend reliably. Maybe they’re happy working on nuts and bolts matters, as they didn’t try for a council seat.

It’s too bad, because those committees have served as the “nursery” for successful councilmembers in the past. Hopefully they will again, since those who want to go from zero government experience to Arcata’s top leadership haven’t gotten it together.

(The lack of a big council race certainly saved me a lot of work organizing another candidate forum and managing the profiles and advocacy letters. But that’s fun work, in that people are involved and impassioned, you have a lot to work with. I had already reserved the Council Chamber, talked to the Chamber of Commerce and KHSU about participation, and was getting ready to ramp up the Issue Scrutinizers one last time, then the candidate collapse happened. Oh well…)

Arcata’s Nuclear Weapons Free Zone & Peace Committee has suspended operations. A flagship committee when formed in 1989, the classic Arcata committee (with “Peace” added to its name in 2005) withered for lack of participation. It couldn’t maintain enough members to form a quorum and is now moribund.

Now, the Committee on Democracy and Corporations is in suspense, unable to sustain the critical mass of a quorum. Measure F, which created the committee, passed by a landslide in 1998 (3,193/60.83 percent in favor; 2,056/ 39.17 percent opposed). It probably would again.

This Saturday, we’ll have another great Farmers’ Market. The Ridge Trail and McDaniel Slough projects are proceeding apace. Arcata has a whole bunch of new affordable housing. In spite of economic adversity and lack of public involvement, everything is kind of OK… for now.

Still, it seems prudent to lay down a marker here that this kind of non-involvement will eventually be very, very bad for Arcata. Nature – and politics – abhors a vacuum, and if credible candidates don’t run, the opportunists and extremists will gladly fill the void. It has happened.

So here’s the big tut-tut: 1. Never assume that City stuff is being handled properly, because sometimes, without you, it isn’t. 2. If this is a trend, no good can come of it. 3. Don’t despair that you, the concerned citizen, don’t have a chance in the next City Council race. If you can just get 20 qualified voters to sign your petition, you’re on the ballot, and you may not have much competition. 4. If you’re thinking of an eventual run for council, try working on a volunteer committee first to see if you can handle and/or enjoy the work. 5. If you’re already a well-functioning member of a citizen committee, consider going for the council gusto.

The Humboldt County Board of Stupidizers?

Over 12 years and more than 200 public meetings, Humboldt County has been crafting a General Plan Update (GPU). All that scoping, testimony, drafting and other staff work is at risk of being thrown away. The reason? Supervisors Bass, Bohn and Sundberg say – in so many, sometimes too many words – they don’t understand it, so they don’t believe it.

It’s the logical fallacy known as argument from personal incredulity – one used, for example, by the 911 “truthers.” They don’t understand how two planes could destroy more than two buildings, so they reject that explanation. Creationists don’t see how an eyeball could evolve, so that rules out evolution.

It’s not just for conspiracy theorists. Spend any time at City Council meetings and you’ll soon hear someone testify that, “I fail to understand how (an idea is true or relevant),” as though their inability to grasp a concept invalidates it on some objective level.

The key words, though, are the first two: “I fail.” Yes, you fail. But must we all be hobbled by your failure? In the case of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, apparently so.

As quoted by Ryan Burns in the North Coast Journal, here are the explanations by the three supervisors for wishing to dispose of the current draft:

Rex Bohn: “I wished I had the knowledge that, I mean, that Mark [Lovelace] had. He’s got to work on this for 12 years. I’d like to have some of that knowledge so maybe I’d have a little bit of understanding.”

Ryan Sundberg: “I guess the more I look at this the more confused I get… It’s super-overwhelming to me, I know, to try to go through this thing and understand it. The more I read it, it seems like, the more backwards I get.”

If that plaintive confession doesn’t instill fear for the county’s future in you, check out this dog’s breakfast of a rationale:

Virginia Bass: “What my uncomfortableness at this point, especially when you, you know, we’re looking at the document, we have asked for so much information … but what I don’t have in there, and I have never really asked or we haven’t really been able to get to the bottom of, which really rises to my radar today is, again, the unintended consequences and my needing to have a level of confidence in moving forward.”

It’s particularly regrettable that Bass – someone who actually does do the work – should pretend to be a know-nothing. The feigned dumb-down is most unbecoming.

Did any of these folks happen to mention in their campaigns for office that they couldn’t understand planning documents? Now they tell us. What other parts of their jobs are they unable to comprehend? These are stark questions that these three will be asked when and if they run for re-election. We now know that any new candidates ought to be asked this as well: what parts of the job are you going to have trouble with?

With three of five county legislators unable to read legislation, it seems that the citizen participation in the GPU– including long evenings spent away from families at meetings that stretched into the night over the past decade, then driving home in the rain and dark – well, that was all for nothing, because of the supervisors’ just-disclosed perceptual and cognitive impairments.

Rather than toss out the work laboriously crafted by citizens and planners, couldn’t these supervisors hire someone to explain the General Plan to them in simple terms that would expedite comprehension? We all have challenges in our work, and this is their work.

It shouldn’t be hard – the language and length isn’t at all exotic for a technical planning document. Lots of people do understand the GPU very well. Planners understand it. Attorneys certainly do. And the special interests who backed these supervisors are obviously paying attention.

As Frank Zappa so succinctly put it in “Heavenly Bank Account,” a song about televangelist-grifters: “It is best in cases like this to pretend that you are stupid.”

Trouble is, no one believes that these three supes are stupid. So the mumbling and dissembling isn’t believable, and won’t cover up payback for patrons.

These three supervisors asked everyone for their jobs. They ought to find a way to do them – for everyone.

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