EDITOR’S DESK: Public comment window dressing?
How representative are our leaders? Do they hear what we say? When they publish a survey and say they want, for instance, public comment on goals for a regional
transportation plan, are they just fulfilling a requirement or are they actually interested in people's opinions and ideas?
I got a small insight into those questions at the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG) meeting Feb. 9. I didn't go there expecting to address the board of directors of that regional government planning body. But I felt obliged to do so in response to what I heard.
Let me back up for a second. The original 34 goals, written in technocratese, with duplicate ideas and a potential for hyper government regulation, were put before the public in a survey form between mid-December and mid-January. Anyone filling it out with thoughtfulness would have needed an hour or more to slog through it. Nonetheless, according to PPACG tallies, 70 people eventually took the time to do so.
Their responses were then made part of the public record. Browsing through them in late January, I found a variety of thoughts - some wackadoo of course - that will always happen - but most showing logical insights and concerns. Some liked the anti-car slant of the goals, and some zealots didn't think it was slanty enough. There was also a noticeable number who bashed the premises of several of the goals themselves.
Unfortunately, all that seems to have been a waste of time. At the meeting, PPACG staff made sure to explain - several times actually - that most of the goals are actually non-negotiable, at least if the area wants to qualify for federal funding. Thus, people who oppose, for instance, greenhouse gas standards will be utterly ignored.
Not that PPACG can prove such scorn is misguided, by the way. It seems that no regional study of our region's contribution to global warming has ever been done… which lent an aura of amusement to board members' efforts at the meeting to find a percentage greenhouse-gas reduction between now and 2015 that might be politically acceptable. They finally decided on four; I'm thinking of giving them all a dartboard next Christmas - it would be just as accurate.
But what really fried me at the Feb. 9 meeting was to hear a PPACG staffer say that the only real problems survey respondents had was with the number of goals (they've since been cut to 17), some redundancies and the term definitions. And the board did not dispute him. So when public comment was called for, there I was at the podium, asking the board if they had read the public comments. A couple of affirmatives were heard (out of a group of 20-some board members). Then I asked them what was the point of people even filling out the survey if it wasn't going to be read by the board members and misrepresented by the staff?
I didn't get any kind of answer to that, although later a board member who had read the comments said respondents "contradicted each other," then mentioned one of the wackadoo ideas as apparent evidence that the whole process was pointless. He was followed by another member who happily expressed the belief that all the issues had been worked out Jan. 20 at the one public workshop in this whole process - one that was scheduled during the improbable time frame (for most working people) of 8 a.m. to noon on a Thursday. The chair, Sallie Clark, said she now wants to schedule a special public meeting in April, but the question remains as to whether that's just more feel-good window dressing.
I have one last point. All this talk from staff about the necessity to comply with requirements so as to qualify for federal tax dollars? Has anyone looked at the national debt lately? And didn't the last election indicate a majority of the country is worried about that? From my little window on the world, that seems like the best survey of all. Maybe it's high time that our regional representatives, instead of being cowed into submission by federal extortionists, started pushing back to allow a regional plan that would truly represent the region. Of course, a side effect of getting less federal money would likely be some PPACG staffers losing their jobs. But I'm sure they'd never look at it that way.