Saturday, May 6, 2017

How to Make a Bad Decision: Step One

How does a local governing body, one that, in theory, is very close to the people being governed, wind up making a really bad and wildly out of touch decision? Let me walk you through one version of the process, being that I've just been subjected to it last Thursday.

For context, I'm an appointed member of the Benton County Environmental Issues Advisory Committee. This is a group of volunteers, appointed by the County Commissioners, tasked with giving said County Commissioners advice, background and/or in-depth information on environmental issues they will be making decisions on.

Yes, making decisions on. Needless to say, it's not uncommon for these decisions to have large costs (or benefits) associated with them, and/or the potential for large impacts (positive or negative) on our county.

So, how do we end up with a politically deep blue place like Benton County, with three Democratic County Commissioners, making some very backward and environmentally-unfriendly decisions? Let me walk you through one way that governing process works - or rather, doesn't work.

First, if you're a governing body, form an advisory group on a given subject. It can be almost anything. I've served on advisory committees dealing with the environment, utility rates, and solid waste, among other topics. If it could be subject to official policies, it's possible there's an advisory group to advise on it through one of your local governing bodies.

Second, make the qualifications for becoming a member of that group, shall we say, flexible.

Third, when appointing people to the advisory group, hey, don't sweat the details. I am, in all honesty, extremely qualified to be a member of the EIAC. But it's not like the County Commissioners who appointed me knew that. When there was an opening on the EIAC, I submitted an online application, and was called in for what turned out to be a two or three minute interview. That was it. It was an almost totally detail-free process. Mind you, this committee is the largest advisory group there is at the county - and pretty much everyone gives lip service to how important it is.

And yet...My experience applying and getting appointed showed me a process (and three commissioners) who were, at best, in a hurry. At worst, lazy and checked-out.

No, that's not the worst, actually. At best let's say it's a compromised system. At worst, it's a corrupt one. I serve with people about a dozen people, about half of whom seem openly hostile to the environment, and the concept of protecting the environment. These are people who seem more concerned with, say, facilitating industry, rather than protecting and promoting our local environment and eco-systems.

Those same people take us to the next step, which is to impede, corrupt, or at least slow down the process for addressing issues of importance.

At the meeting we just had, one of the big topics before us was whether or not to advise the commissioners to support a pilot program of non-lethal predator control for local farmers and ranchers. It would not cost the county any money, just reallocate some that already goes to (lethal) predator control. It would add an option to the county's array of responses, not take anything away. It's been done elsewhere very successfully, and would be a good fit for Benton County. On the surface, it would seem to be a no-brainer, slam dunk, let's do this kind of idea.

But then several members of the EIAC started complaining that the whole thing is anti-hunter, and things have ground to a halt. Mind you, this non-lethal predator control proposal has NOTHING TO DO with hunting. Nothing at all. But it's a progressive idea, and the rigidly conservative people on the EIAC - the ones who were appointed by our three Democratic commissioners - have clearly decided to oppose it strongly. Why? I can't tell you for sure, but it certainly seems purely ideological.

And this ideological interference is not conducive to good advice. A lack of good advice is conducive to bad decisions. Sadly, it's a nearly perfect system of screwed-upness. Just put lazy and lack in one end, and bad advice and bad decisions come out the other. Repeat as necessary.

But it's not a closed system. Nearly anyone can play, if they have a mind to, and a willingness to go to a few meetings. The Environmental Issues Advisory Committee has, apparently, been churning out bad advice for quite some time, due to the composition of the group, which currently (and historically) skews towards being anti-environmental. Now that I've joined, I'm another voice for protecting the environment, rather than industry. Were another person who actually cares about the environment to be appointed, and/or one of the anti-environmental members to leave, the balance would be further corrected. More good inputs would result in more good outputs.

Making decisions. We all want out elected representatives to make good decisions. In this case of Benton County, every one decision results from the three votes of the County Commissioners. Those three votes are likely very influenced by the advice given by a handful of other people. The power of advisory committees can be huge - for good, or for ill.

ALL OF WHICH is a long-winded way of encouraging anyone and everyone to find a local governmental advisory committee on a subject they care about and GET INVOLVED. Apply to become a member. Download their meeting agendas and minutes. Attend their meetings whenever you can. Speak up. Bring a friend. It's pretty easy. You don't have to run for office. No one even need know you're "doing it."

Becoming one of the official voices whispering in the ears of your elected representatives is any extremely important way to address issues of importance to you. And if you aren't willing to step up and do it, rest assured, someone will. That someone might not have pure intentions. They might, in fact, be pure poison.

YOU are the cure.