Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Public Input Isn’t a Good Thing

I shall now utter what amounts to heresy in current public policy thinking. Getting the public’s input isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it can often lead to paralysis. Why? Because no matter how good a project might be, there will always be those who oppose it. Unfortunately, those opponents usually are louder than those in favor of a project, even if they are numerically weaker

That’s because of the stronger motivation inherent in opposing an initiative.  Think for a moment: when have you ever seen someone stage a protest in favor of a project? Now think about the last time you heard of a lawsuit being filed to stop a project or, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, someone chaining themselves to a tree to stop a bulldozer. 

That latter example comes from Atlanta, where the Presidential Parkway was stopped mid-construction through a combination of protests and lawsuits. The original plan, backed by former President Jimmy Carter and the Georgia DOT, would have resulted in a limited access, elevated highway east of downtown Atlanta. The impacted neighborhoods, many of which were undergoing the initial stages of gentrification, fought against it with lawsuits and the occasional protestor firmly attached to a tree. 

Imagine a freeway opposition so successful, the government has to put up a plaque to commemorate their efforts. This plaque is in Freedom Park, where officeholders originally wanted a wide expressway to be built. Photo courtesy of Keizers/Wikipedia.
The lawsuits were more successful at delaying construction, but the protests gradually soured politicians’ attitudes towards the project. Construction was cancelled and the Georgia DOT learned the hard way that politicians prefer for problems to go away quietly, rather than become more distracting over time. Today parkland and a grade-level boulevard named Freedom Parkway fills a space that, for at least a few years, was an eerie world of unused bridge supports rising like Roman ruins from the red Georgia clay.

These opponents were certainly helped along by the inherent flaws in what was a wasteful project. After all, Atlanta’s expressways are little more than multilane parking lots for several hours each workday. The neighborhood this road would have bisected, Inman Park, later gentrified into one of the most expensive in Atlanta. If an elevated, pollution-spewing expressway had been built, would anyone have wanted to live near it? Probably not.
A traffic jam in Atlanta. Would you want to live near this? Photo courtesy of Atlantacitizen/Wikipedia.
Fair enough, but does an opposition lose when a project isn’t so flawed? No, for on July 31st of 2012, voters in the Atlanta metro area voted against a local option sales tax (T-SPLOST) that would have paid for a vast array of transportation projects. Most of that revenue (52%) would have gone to new transit programs, but a lot would have gone to roads, too. While only 1% would have gone to bike and pedestrian facilities, it must be remembered that such projects are fairly cheap, as I pointed out when I wrote about Complete Streets Policies.

So, why did the opponents win in this case? Ironically, it was the actions of the policymakers that ensured their victory. Georgia’s elected and appointed officialdom opted for a funding option that required a referendum. A referendum is the purest form of citizen input on policy, so a win for the proposal would be inoculated both it and its sponsors against the all-too-common charge that officials didn’t get enough feedback from the public. But if you look at the assortment of special interest groups that opposed it and why, a pattern emerges:

1.       The Sierra Club opposed it because too much money was allocated to roads.
2.       The NAACP opposed it because not enough money was being spent in poor, largely black portions of the area.
3.       The Georgia chapter of the Tea Party opposed it because it was a tax increase, period.

See the pattern? The opponents were all taking purist positions in line with the political agenda.  Simple positions make for good soundbites in a political fight. 

On the other side were most major employers in Atlanta, including Coca-Cola, plus various political figures such as the Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, who was elected with strong support from the City’s African-American electorate. They were comfortable with messy compromises, as this proposal essentially was, because they operate in an environment that requires compromise to function, i.e. the real world.

But compromises make lousy rallying cries. It’s much easier to yell “No new taxes” than it is to yell “It’s not perfect, but what is?” In a referendum contest, the motivated minority is going to vote; the apathetic majority won’t, unless there’s something else bringing them to the polls. They aren’t going to show up for a referendum or a boring primary in mid-summer. That’s why T-SPLOST went “t-splat”.

So, are policymakers trapped? If they fail to consult the public, are they doomed to suffer headline-grabbing protests and expensive lawsuits? If they do ask for public input, will their plans always be derailed by small groups of motivated opponents? No, but they can only avoid these fates if they pay attention to conditions on the ground.

In the case of the Presidential Parkway, leaders failed to recognize that entire neighborhoods were rebelling against their plans. Neighborhoods can easily sway elections for city council, Mayor, or legislative seats because of their concentration of votes. Officeholders facing such a hotbed of hostility must either find a way to placate these constituents or start packing up their offices. 

Those who didn’t rely on electoral support from these areas, such as Georgia DOT board members, failed to realize that their constituents were those same officeholders that came under intense pressure from the neighborhoods they represented. These elected officials weren’t going to stick their necks out for a project that would cost them their office.

For the T-SPLOST issue, policymakers didn’t understand that it’s not always a good idea to punt the ball. Stretching the football metaphor further (this is Georgia we’re talking about, after all), the ball should have been run, because the defense wasn’t deep. The opposition consisted of a few special interest groups that could sway the outcome of an election if only their motivated supporters showed up.

Transit proposed for the Atlanta Beltline. With funding defeated by a coalition of the Sierra Club, NAACP, and the Georgia chapter of the Tea Party, how will it ever be funded? Enjoy the traffic jams, y'all! Rendering courtesy of the Atlanta Beltine, Inc.
The bottom line is that policymakers need to pay attention to how concentrated the opposition is. If it appears to be very concentrated and strong, extensive public outreach isn’t a bad idea as it could save a lot of time, money, and political embarrassment. 

However, if the angry faces they see at public hearings and meetings are the same ones seen at EVERY public hearing, regardless of the topic, they may very well be looking at a scattered, weak opposition that doesn’t have the backing of the public at large. That’s what happened in Georgia’s referendum. Unfortunately, in the current skittish climate of public policymaking, it’s a scenario that will likely play out repeatedly.

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