City Council needs a format for deliberating about risk

On Sept. 4, Durango City Council appropriated $36,000 to hire a consultant to devise an organically managed land policy for the city. The council was pressured into the appropriation by the group Organically Managed Parks Durango and its threat to put an initiative on the November ballot that would have jeopardized the environment and increased maintenance cost of public lands in the community.

The Durango Herald editorial board rightly chastised the council for its decision and for showing how any special interest group now knows how to “roll the city” (Herald, Sept. 9). What should be added to the criticism are suggestions for how the council can deal with risk issues in the future to prevent being blackmailed again.

The recent conditions faced by the City Council concerning risk management are not unique to Durango. There were a series of studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences back in the 1990s that specifically addressed how local officials can effectively cope with risk situations. The results were published in a book Understanding Risks, Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society.

The most important message the book teaches is to differentiate between risk assessment and risk management. In the current chemical discussions, that distinction was never made. The council felt obligated apparently to make a management decision without proper risk assessment. To prevent that from happening, the NAS suggests city councils adapt a set of steps that will be followed rigorously in council meetings and explained to everyone beforehand. Without such a structured format, hearings become free-for-alls, and bad decisions will inevitably emerge.

The steps advised by the NAS include:

Getting the participation right;

Getting the problem right;

Getting the science right; and

Getting the deliberations right.

In the recent council meeting about using synthetic chemicals, it appears that the first step was adequately covered because all the stakeholders seemed to have been involved. It is the second and third steps that were not followed, and the council advanced to the fourth step without the valid risk assessment information necessary to allow an effective management decision to be made.

About “Getting the problem right” (Step 2), NAS says: “Most claims concerning risks start with an assumption rather than an assessment of the danger. It is wrong to simply assume that because there are chemicals or industrial emissions that triggered their alarm, that those conditions pose an unacceptable health hazard to a community.” The evidence the organic activists provided was contained in the documentary “A Chemical Reaction” and Paul Tukey’s The Organic Lawn Care Manual. But these sources provide only generalized accusations, and for the most part are anecdotal, not epidemiological.

According to the National Academy, the first response by the City Council should have been to challenge Organically Managed Parks Durango to provide evidence that the specific types of synthetic chemicals used by the city, and at the specific dosage used in their applications, are dangerous to people or animal’s health or detrimental to the environment. Furthermore, that the proceedings would not continue until such evidence is provided.

When the group submits what they believe is such evidence, Step 3, “Getting the science right,” can take place. NAS cautions “Too often, deliberations about risks start with faulty conclusions about the dangers involved.” It does not take a lot of scientific expertise to detect the way scientific principles are violated in the documentary film or Tukey’s lawn manual. The dangers of using synthetic chemicals are overstated by ignoring dosage and statistical fundamentals necessary to establish a causal relationship. Also, the dangers and not the benefits of using chemicals are all that is discussed, and only the benefits and not the danger and limitations of using organic products are presented.

If the city staff does not have the expertise to make a scientific evaluation, then the council should obtain such help from outside experts. Fort Lewis College science faculty would be a good place to start. A valid risk assessment would not only provide the basis for good risk management decisions, but also information to counter any ballot threats.

If the second and third steps are addressed properly then Step 4 can proceed with assurance. A cost/benefit approach is preferred by NAS.

It is important for the City Council to develop a format for addressing risks because this community has several ideologically driven groups that do not have adequate empirical evidence to back up their risk concerns but will press for restrictions or special favors. The recent proposal to ban outdoor smoking by Lasso Tobacco Coalition is a prime example of a restriction without a scientific justification. Such a risk-assessment format will not inhibit Durango from instituting restrictions or providing incentives where warranted, only ensuring that they are based on hard evidence rather than scare tactics or ideology.

Garth Buchanan holds a doctorate in applied science and has 35 years of experience in operations research. Reach him at gbuch@frontier.net.