Saturday, March 26, 2011

Defeating citizen involvement by overwhelming it

One of the things about the "smoke-filled back rooms" where things used to be decided: at least it was honest. If you weren't invited, it was because the local sachems and campaign donors didn't care what you thought and, so, in that more honest age, didn't ask you what you thought.

Government is very different today, at least in that the smoking is gone. Oh, and no politician or staffer would ever admit that the sachems, mainly corporate funded, are still back there, still calling the shots from the word Go. Thus, we've gone from a zero public involvement world to one in which, in theory, the public has every opportunity to participate. The way it's done now is that all local governments -- schools, sewer districts, cities and counties, transit districts, highway planning departments, and innumerable intergovernmental "task forces" (Courthouse Square, anyone?) spin off from themselves a plethora of groups soliciting your input, usually after carefully constraining the options you are allowed to consider so that, no matter what, you can be recorded as having "participated," which lets them check the box that says that they offered an "open and inclusive public process."

One of the tricks of the trade is for all the local governments and special districts to unleash their various task forces, committees and what not in complete and perfect isolation from each other, so that citizens are faced with an overwhelming demand for their time during some periods, and nothing to review at others.

Consider the stormwater, for example. Stormwater management is important. What's the principal problem with stormwater? Roads and parking lots -- "impervious surfaces," in other words. These are a major source of pollutants and cause a huge share of our problems with rain. What's interesting is that the stormwater management plan is being reviewed and updated AFTER the $100M road bond that was greased through a few years back, just as the Transit District's funding was imploding. So we get this request for input from the Transit District too (below).

SKT Memorandum

March 11, 2011

To: Community Transit Task Force (CTTF)

From: Kate Tarter, Co-Chair, CTTF

Dan Clem, Co-chair, CTTF

Subject: Request for Information

At our meeting on March 7th the group agreed to reach out to our respective constituents who we represent on the CTTF to gather information on potential new transit service. Specifically, what benefits or service do people need to see in order to support a potential ballot measure for new service?

We are requesting that you seek out information (as is identified on page 2) and send it back to Linda Galeazzi at no later than April 20th. Linda will compile the information in order for us to review it at our May 2nd meeting.

The purpose of gathering this information is to get a snapshot of the existing climate for additional transit service. The Board of Directors will use the information to determine if the District should pursue a local-option tax levy for new transit service, at what level of service, and when it should put it on the election ballot.

Please contact Allan Pollock at (503) 588-2424 or if you have any questions on this request.


The CTTF agreed that the likely new transit service should include Saturday service, additional evening service, and additional frequency on existing routes where ridership warrants. They also felt that a potential local-option tax levy should not exceed 54 cents and be centered around not exceeding more than $100 per year on an average assessed value of a home within the Salem-Keizer Urban Growth Boundary.

Potential messages of a campaign may include:

  • Funding service for seniors and disabled
  • Someone you know rides (needs) a Cherriots bus
  • A focus on economic benefits – jobs
  • A focus on environmental benefits – reduced congestion, reduced carbon footprint

Information Requested:

  1. What benefits would you/your organization need to see in order to support a local-option tax levy?

  1. What messages are important to you or your organization?

  1. Would you/your organization be willing to support a local option tax levy at around 54 cents if it included Saturday service, additional evening service, and additional frequency on certain existing routes? If not, what level would you support a levy?

  1. Rank in order of importance (1-3):

_____ Saturday service

_____ Additional evening service

_____ Additional frequency on existing service

  1. Additional information important in your decision making process?


Now, I'm not criticizing the Transit District for seeking input on a bond, but I can say that this is just setting them up to be slaughtered again. The municipalities that were all-too-happy to shove the responsibility for transit onto a politically weak agency would much rather pour more pavement and entertain half-billion-dollar third-bridge fantasies than they would think about how low-income families and workers are supposed to get around in Salem . . . "What, the peasants cannot afford cars, insurance, and gasoline? Let them drive electric cars then!" say the Marie Antoinettes in Salem and Marion County's upper echelons (as they busily excite themselves with supercool wowie electric charging stations to give even more comfort to the very comfortable).

Meanwhile, S-K Schools, the second-largest district in Oregon, sees its budget rapidly proving unequal to the many tasks before it.

So, as we're pouring millions into encouraging more driving, and spending millions more on the Highway Department's dream of spending hundreds of millions more on a new boondoggle bridge, voters are seeing their jobs and hours cut. Funny, I don't think Salem, with a quarter of home sales being foreclosures, is going to be voting to pass many bonds anytime soon. But, no doubt, each special taxing district is going to continue to act in perfect isolation, each one trying to sell its bond as this or that many coffees per week and without any reference to the many other economic stressors that people face.

Ultimately, perhaps the many "public involvement" campaigns operating in simultaneously but in total isolation from one another, and with no regard for even the most politically active voters' limited ability to process so many issues at the same time, is actually a pretty good reflection of how distant people in power have become from the masses whom they supposedly toil to serve.

I have long had a pleasant daydream fantasy of how this could all be improved. I picture being given the power to make one simple change: everyone in any arm of local governments with the title of councilor, commissioner, manager, director, or administrator would no longer get their pay or per diem via direct deposit. Instead, a computer program would randomly assign the duty of informing those people about where their checks were to a different agency each week, and the public involvement staff for the assigned agency would have to spread the word using only the same methods that are routinely used within that agency to inform the general public about public comment requests and calls for participation and involvement opportunities. For example, consider how much better proposed land-use changes would be publicized if all the folks heading up various agencies had to rely on little signs posted in the rain next to weedy fields to know where their checks would be that week!

Monday night: Important civic topic

Jefferson-Mon-001Image via WikipediaMarch 28, 2011

Holey Wall: New Challenges to Church-State Separation

Rob Boston
Senior Policy Analyst Americans United
Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Hatfield Room in the Hatfield Library, Willamette University
Free and Open to the public

For more information contact Reyna Meyers at or 503-370-6046.
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