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At the April 19 Glacier View Fire District meeting to discuss the upcoming election, several meaningful insights developed.
Based on an informal sample of opinion, I felt that those opposed to the tax increase held strong views but were not going to express them out of fear for the consequences. So I
decided to present (in this letter) the opposition viewpoint, not as my own, but just as strongly as these objectors would have done by themselves.
In the service of balance, I offered an equally strong argument in favor of the
increase, based on the opinions I had gathered. Both were distributed in written form. In the end, there were objectors to the increase present at the meeting and a lively, sometimes heated discussion followed.
The biggest achievement was open exchange of views, not just sanitized Q&A using political news conference tactics.
The arguments I offered took the board to task for their handling of the tax increase issue. The primary arguments against it centered on the size of the increase, the lack of prior information and convincing justification, and the rush to a vote without adequate groundwork. The board response was that a recent change in election laws forced a last minute choice between May 2014 and a distasteful two-year delay. But the more telling part of the board response was: “We are doing the best we can.”
Accurately interpreting that statement is an interesting problem. It could be a plea for understanding, acceptance, and trust. It could be an admission of inadequacy, since elected public officials are obligated to serve the public interest, act transparently, and respect the political dimension of their positions. It could just be saying that we are asking too much. I’m convinced that this last interpretation is the most relevant one, and that directors are justified in saying it.
Fire District Directors are essentially unpaid volunteers, acting out of civic duty in service to their community. They stepped up with expertise and/or interest in emergency services, not politics. Hoping for expert, corporate-style planning and management in this context is unrealistic. We don’t have a published, prettified long-range plan right now; we might not see one even in the future. The likely prevailing model is that individual decisions in a tightly resource-constrained organization use the best available information and judgment at the time. We are told that if we ask specific questions, we will get decent answers.
But I imagine they won’t necessarily fit into a totally unified picture or beautifully crafted master plan. “Just talk to us,” is the advice I heard from a board member. The implication is that they have the data, the analyses, the reasoning, but it has not been polished for publication. This is the reality we are living with, and we will have to live with, in a small rural community with a limited tax base and finite pool of skills. In the end, we must respect our own limitations.
Finally, there is an unpleasant truth underneath all of this that no one wants to publicly discuss.
We, the voters, are part of the problem. The board is devoting its limited time and energy to getting the primary job done, and that is delivering emergency services, not managing voters. Spending a lot more time and effort for the benefit of the small percentage of voters who will engage with the issues and seek to be fully informed, but who will not materially affect the outcome of an election, is a poor trade-off.
This may not be a conscious decision by the board, but it is pragmatic and ultimately justified. Voter disinterest is not their fault, and they can’t waste precious resources fighting it, but have to rely on simpler tactics in steering and managing the electorate. This election is a perfect example.
Should we vote in favor of the tax increase? To me, it feels a lot like Obamacare in Congress. It is quite costly to taxpayers, arguably has serious defects and flaws, and could easily be mismanaged or balloon into even greater expense. If you demand thorough justification, it is a heavy lift to vote ‘yes’.
But, for all its imperfections, will it ultimately yield major benefits for many people? Do the net benefits outweigh the negatives? Is it the best thing we can accomplish at this moment, considering all of the circumstances and impacts of passage or failure? Is it worth the risks?
The messy business of American style democracy is at work here, and each of us must answer these questions for ourselves.
Glacier View Meadows