County is undermining engagement

I am a fairly experienced restaurant patron and usually the drill goes something like this: I arrive at the eatery, am shown to a table, brought a glass of water and then handed a menu. Upon my acceptance of the menu, I have entered into an implicit contract with the server: He assumes that I will probably order something and hopes that it will be more than just an iced tea and a side of mashed potatoes. Unless I have a profound misunderstanding of the system, my accepting the menu does not indicate my intent to order everything on it. If that is the case, I owe restaurateurs across the country a sincere apology.

So it is somewhat baffling that two La Plata County commissioners, as well as a vocal handful of residents in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting were concerned that by formally accepting the Climate & Energy Action Plan, the county was somehow committing itself to implementing the full menu of options the document outlines for addressing emissions of greenhouse gases in the county. The plan was crafted so as to offer a range of lighter-fare choices such as education about using nonmotorized transportation options, to heavy entrées such as emissions testing for vehicles. The more actions taken, the more a collective effect the community will have on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions we collectively produce in the county. It was this shared vision that brought all the entities involved in the CEAP process to the table 2½ years ago, and while it may take many small meals to get there, it is still the right direction to go.

But for the county commissioners, apparently, the notion of committing to a meal is overreaching, and in that apparent trend comes the question of just what their vision is for La Plata County. With its refusal to accept the CEAP and with its deafening silence on the comprehensive planning effort’s death spiral late last year, the Board of Commissioners has created for itself an implicit position that considers only what is happening right now today, with willful ignorance of what might come. That is hardly a vision and is not much of a policy agenda.

The ramifications of such a death-by-starvation approach to governing and policy adoption are far-reaching. The most obvious of these casualties is any clear sense of what life in La Plata County ought to look like in the coming years and what issues are important to address – let alone how to address them. Those are serious enough consequences that Jim Fitzgerald succinctly recognized at Tuesday’s meeting: “When you don’t have long-range planning, every decision is an individual decision. You don’t build on your successes or your failures.” In essence, all context is lost.

The approach that the commissioners are using has a farther-reaching and perhaps more concerning implication, though. By engaging residents in collaborative stakeholder processes that consider complex, divisive issues of great concern to a broad spectrum of residents, lawmakers signal to those residents that their time, energy and ideas have bearing in the final outcome of a given policy. When those efforts are instead met with outright dismissal or implicit rejection, citizens’ level of cynicism increases in direct proportion to their plummeting interest in engaging in public processes. That formula serves to further reinforce the “govern by not governing” approach that the current commissioners appear to have adopted. And it can do so for the long haul: It is far easier to diminish trust than to build it, let alone rebuild it.

This is all made worse by the fact that a vocal group of anti-government advocates, convinced that any notion of long-range planning can only be a signal that the United Nations has nefarious plans to control every detail of life in La Plata County, has twice been successful using a distract-and-disrupt strategy in the late stages of important, time-consuming and well-intended efforts.

By affirming this civic engagement equivalent of a temper tantrum, the county commissioners are reinforcing the approach, virtually ensuring that these tactics will not change in future debates. That does not provide much incentive to engage in long-haul processes that can advance only with the investment of political capital from all sides of an issue.

When commissioners dismiss the work of many with obtuse concerns about over-committing, they are profoundly under-committing to the most important role they take on when stepping into office: that of caring for the many and different resources this county possesses now and must shepherd into the future. That goes far beyond fiscal management: It encompasses all the nuances that comprise the definition of quality of life. It is too important a responsibility to refuse to acknowledge the breadth of that charge.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.