Solutions 4/19: Poor policies, public responses


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By Huck Fairman

We live most fortunately amid the multi levels of democracy. Our complex communities and regions necessarily provide arrays of services, governing bodies, businesses, and environments. But those making decision at the different levels do not always do so on the most circumspect of bases.

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Was it necessary for Amtrak-NJ Transit to shut down Dinky service while making changes on the main line? Various governing bodies have rendered conflicting decisions related to the PennEast Pipeline — deemed, by a consulting firm, to be completely unnecessary due to a glut of natural gas.

Was Rider University’s decision to sell Westminster Choir College to a financially precarious, inexperienced, Chinese corporation the best decision? Did the Princeton School Board’s changing of school hours anticipate the traffic chaos and danger that has resulted around the high school and middle school? Did the decision by the Princeton Council and engineering staff to place a refueling station in a residential, traffic-snarled location, against the recommendation of the town’s own Site Plan Review Advisory Board, while not informing the neighborhood and then refusing to relocate it – were these defensible decisions? Were these instances of the ways democracy is supposed to work?

Of course democracy is as imperfect as the citizens who participate in it. But, when bad decisions are made, there should be the remedies to reverse them.

This was the subject of a timely talk recently presented by the local Sierra Club chapter at Mercer County Community College and delivered by Dr. Michael Brogan of Rider University’s Political Science Department.

While the particular issue he focused on was the politics surrounding the PennEast Gas Pipeline, his research and  conclusions were applicable to any number of public issues.

In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, for several years, there has been a struggle between commercial interests behind the unnecessary Penn East Pipe Line and public concerns for safety and environmental preservation. Both residents and towns (notably Hopewell), have expressed their concerns and taken action. Dr. Brogan pointed out that not only do pipeline leaks and spills happen, but the compressor stations are even more dangerous.

So how can citizens respond when they are faced with bad public policies or decisions?

First, Professor Brogan contended, it is essential to get to know the interests of the parties involved. He noted that Pennsylvania is an “energy state” with industry holding the upper hand in many policy decisions. He discovered that pipelines themselves do not generate that much profit. It is instead the lands acquired to build and run them that become increasingly valuable as a result of market forces and the federal subsides, resulting from intense lobbying. In short, the principals of the pipeline are pursuing profit, whether or not the pipeline is needed or threatens the locales it runs through.

How then do local residents oppose powerful commercial interests? Dr. Brogan pointed out that two sources of information are key. One is science. In the pipeline case, questions around the need for gas, or lack of it, and those around the environmental threats must be answered. Do the pipelines run through waterways, rivers, preserved lands or public spaces where leaks or spills would devastatingly spread?

Second, personal stories about the impacts to individuals or groups resonate through towns and regions. Because, Brogan found, committed activists are only 2-3% of a population, the public needs to be engaged by stories and science.

Terminology also can be important. Dr. Brogan noted that the term “networks” has a more positive connotation than “opposition.” And it is in fact networks that are needed to assemble the necessary volunteers, facts, strategies and meetings. And depending on the scope of the issue, networks can grow into “social movements,” whether to slow the growing number of pipelines or to support something more general like the Green New Deal.

Another necessary factor that Dr. Brogan highlighted was the means to push information out to the public. Which communication methods can be and/or should be used?

First among the several he touted was local newspapers. They can carry information about the issues, meetings, personal stories and neighboring towns’ or regions’ experiences. It is from these that people learn about the issues, efforts and, importantly, who to trust. Of course there are also: word-of-mouth, phone calls, meetings, websites and social media, but not all of these are as efficient or comprehensive.

This point led to Brogan’s insights around “social capital.” Important to any public effort are:

a.) Social relations generated among participants.
b.) The establishment of trust and goodwill (not as likely within commercial or governing entities).
c.) Solidarity, which comes from “bridging” and “bonding,” or mutual support among participants. This in turn emanates from trust and goodwill.

Thus the building of social capital is a circular endeavor, but a key is: communities have power.

From there Dr. Brogan described several motivations that spur people to act. First is self-interest, which often coalesces around private property. The familiar term NIMBY frequently captures the motivation behind action. A more widely focused motivation is what Brogan called “front porch” where people are stirred to act by community interest. A third source of cohesion can be joint efforts between towns to act, when they find common interests.

Dr. Brogan next provided statistics on who acts. Most participants are older, over 40 and college educated; and many are single or no longer have children under the age of five. Many are politically independent, and have incomes over $25,000. And he found that residents who educated themselves on issues were more inclined to talk to and influence others.

Knowledge, he emphasized, leads to reaching out. And for this reason, a small percentage of people can have large impacts. But he urged his audience to first listen, and resist attempting to immediately convince.

And finally he warned that the more an issue is removed from a community, the harder it is to influence or change. Again, communities have power.

Thus there are a range of strategies and steps people can and should take, to be successful. But central to all of them is the need to educate and use that knowledge to reach out.

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