So, the Board of Orange County Commissioners, using a supposedly fair process, decides to haul the county's trash eleven miles back and forth across two-lane roads just to get it packed up and hauled off. And they're packing it up next to Chapel Hill's drinking water supply. How did we arrive at such a bad decision?
Well, the commissioners were pretty candid about it, when pressed. "Everyone agrees that, were technical considerations the only factor, the Eubanks Road dump site would be the best place to put the waste transfer station," said Commissioner Mike Nelson towards the end of the meeting. "But we also agreed, as a community, that we didn't want to go in that direction." What he was referring to, cautiously, was the fact that community organizers in the Rogers neighborhood adjoining the Eubanks Road dump had pilloried the commissioners for years with accusations of "environmental racism," as the predominantly black neighborhood dealt with the consequences of having to live next to trash. Rather than endure the political pressure of being the oppressive bad guys, the commissioners decided to look for another site.
"Where a site like this belongs is near the interstates," said Commissioner Barry Jacobs. "But Hillsborough immediately threatened to annex anything we tried to put close to them. And believe me, that's not an idle threat."
Ah. Now I see. I started out thinking that this was a fair, objective process that just happened to have landed a trash site near my home. Here I was thinking about what's fair, and what's right. But then I find out that the objectively best possible options were taken off the table from the start – either by individual interests who made the loudest noise, or the brute application of political power, public interest be damned. I'm starting to feel like a schmuck for even thinking about fairness. "Ok, if that's the way this game is played, fine: not in my backyard, dammit." Time to scream and yell, time to call in the lawyers. Did I say democracy was people talking out their issues? Democracy is the art of defending your selfish interests while appearing to serve the good of the whole.
Am I more cynical now? No, not really. I still believe our system is the best, in spite of really sucking. After all the acrimony and impassioned pleas in the public hearing, it's important to remember that everybody went home. There were no fights, no arrests. In other parts of the world, the county office would probably be on fire by now, and people like me would be in jail, or shot by police, or disappeared in the night. Power politics sucks . . . but the alternatives are tyranny, or anarchy, or usually both.
I really like your description of the two kinds of decision-making, and why restaurant-style does not apply here.
But what strikes me most about the process is the illusion of transparency. I'm not one of those people who believes that open, transparent decision-making processes are always the best. (The constitutional convention was very tightly guarded, and I don't think it would have worked very well on CSPAN.) But I do believe in honesty. What it sounds like these guys did is make their smoke-filled-back-room decision, and then hold a public meeting purely for the sake of show, during which all they could say was "Good point but it's too late." I would rather dispense with the show.