Sunday, September 19, 2010

Let's Get Ready to Rumble...................

I believe it was Thomas Paine who wrote-- It is through debate and argument that the best solutions come forward. If he didn't say it I'll take the credit. To properly debate an issue involves more than just putting forward a position. You must both understand, and be able to address, the points made by those presenting the opposing view. To really make this concept work you also have to be willing to accept the premise that the opposing view may have some merit.

Unfortunately today we approach debate as an "either/or" proposition. We have also punted the Tom Paine approach of finding the best solutions through debate and adopted the Elbert Hubbard approach, "If you can't answer a man's arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.” But wait there's worse. Now elected officials are trying to avoid debate all together.

It seems some elected officials have taken a lesson from one of the master of backroom politics, Lyndon Johnson, who said, "You've got to work things out in the cloakroom, and when you've got them worked out, you can debate a little before you vote." The focus is getting a consensus, i.e., four votes on Council, on an issue. Once achieved anything that may threaten that consensus, i.e., public debate, is avoided. Instead of seeing public debate for what it is-- testing the validity of a position, provide different perspectives and approaches to consider; it is seen as only unwanted criticism or politically motivated attacks which could threaten the established consensus.

A number of excuses are put forward to avoid public debate. The two most often heard are that no one shows up for public hearings and/or the same old--insert preferred derogatory description here (See Elbert Hubbard comment above)--people show up. Neither case abrogates an elected officials responsibility to make their position clear to the public and address any and all questions, or concerns expressed, regardless of who puts them forward.

People may not show up in great numbers to attend a public hearing. But if the public is not given an opportunity to voice their opinions before a vote the question will be asked- Why wasn't the public given that opportunity? Or if given the opportunity to comment, and some of those questions come from the, "same old (see above) crowd", or viewed as politically motivate, does that in itself invalidate the question or concerns expressed?

Another factor that plays into the decision to avoid debate is viewing it as a win or lose proposition. That during the debate "flaws" in a position may come to light or a question is asked for which there is no ready answer and someone is perceived as, "ill informed." As painful as it sometimes is we all are prone to error and we can't be expected to have all the answers. It's called human nature and I've never understood why in the political arena we go out of our way to deny our inherent fallibility. One would think that dealing with the "flaws" or taking the time to answer the question before an action is taken will better ensure success.

Finally, for elected officials to be really prepared for debating an issue requires going beyond the information provided by staff. Too often staff presentation either reflect the "consensus" view or that of the staff. There are other solutions out there to be considered and should be brought forward for public discussion. It is up to the elected official to understand all the options and be prepared to debate the merits or faults in all of them.

Ultimately it is the elected official that cast the vote that impacts their community. They, not staff, are responsible for explaining that vote and giving the community every possible opportunity to voice their opinions, questions and concerns. There are no valid excuses to avoid this process.

There does come a point when the debate comes full circle and the same arguments or concerns begin to be repeated. There will never be complete agreement on any issue. All that anyone can expect is to have their questions answered and or their concerns addressed. Hopefully, after a thorough and inclusive debate everyone will have a better understanding of the issue and a solution that reflects that understanding will be the result. Elected officials should be expect to embrace debate--not avoid it.

Are our elected officials providing the proper forum for discussing the important issues of the day?

1 comment:

Rob said...

Fascinating! I think Mr. Spock said that otherwise I'll take credit :)

Public debate, is an awesome and amazing concept IF the public is aware.

Some items at City Council may simply not excite the public. Other items will.

With that said, it would seem that the folks on Council and Staff would appreciate the notion of PR for some or all items. Simple items such as flyers at the local hot spots, such as Hyperion, Griffin, Sammy Ts, Corkys, The Library etc go a long way in advertising items and issue to the local folks.

Or, perhaps, we need a Town Crier, running around telling us the hot buttons of the day. Or, maybe a blog in The Front Porch??

Musing about the possibilities of using the old tricks to publicize a gig for politics. It just might work