Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Speaking up for civility

Dismayed by the name-calling that is starting over Gold Rush Ranch, I thought I ought to weigh in on the side of civility and respect. Below is the text of an item I sent the Amador Ledger-Dispatch, shown as published online.

Recent letters to the editor and op-ed columns are a good reminder of how passionately people feel about the Gold Rush Ranch Resort proposal. Some think the project is too big, too destructive and too costly for Sutter Creek. Others think that Gold Rush is the best solution for a range of challenges facing the town and its businesses. I have friends in both camps.

The disagreement is a reminder that good people can and do come to very different conclusions about important local issues. That's normal and healthy provided it leads to civil and respectful debate. But when the disagreement turns into personal attacks, it's not good for Sutter Creek or the larger community. We are too small to allow issues like this to divide us so dramatically.

Everyone involved in this discussion has legitimate concerns. The individuals, groups and public agencies concerned about Gold Rush are worried about public safety, fiscal accountability, habitat destruction, overcrowded schools, sprawl, jammed intersections, air quality and more. Gold Rush supporters are concerned about downtown business, local recreation and city wastewater facilities. All of these issues matter. And we all want Sutter Creek and Amador County to stay a wonderful place to live, do business, work and retire.

If we remember that we share common goals and treat each other with civility and respect, we can move through and beyond Gold Rush Ranch to build a stronger community, one more capable of constructively addressing challenges and solving problems. But if the conflict deteriorates into stone throwing and name calling, all of us will lose, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Instead, we can try to understand each others' points of view, focus on the facts about the project as determined by independent analysts and follow a key principle of win-win negotiating: Be hard on the problem and soft on the people. We may never agree on Gold Rush. But we can disagree in a way that preserves the sense of community that is the ultimate expression of our local quality of life. In my opinion, that's the true path to a successful and prosperous future for Sutter Creek.


John Rathy, Amador City said...

Nicely said by the president of a group which
+ sends polarizing/threatening letters, to people it disagrees with
+ has lawyers as representatives at public meetings,
+ frequently threatens to sue or
+ sues?

Nicely said!

Katherine said...

Hi, John: Foothill Conservancy often makes its opinion known -- but we focus on issues. That is altogether different from personal attacks.

A few facts and questions in response to your specific points:

-- I don't know that Foothill Conservancy has ever sent a threatening or polarizing letter to "people" we "disagree with." We do send letters to local governments expressing our concerns about specific projects, generally in the form of comments on environmental impact reports, potential project approvals, and so forth. That's a normal part of the public participation process. It's only fair to spell out specific concerns.

-- Attorney Tom Infusino has been representing Foothill Conservancy at some public meetings over the last 18 months or so. Tom is an expert on land use planning. In addition to being an accomplished land use lawyer, Tom holds a degree in land use planning. For most of Foothill Conservancy's 19-year history, volunteers, including me, represented the group at public meetings. But we have found that government officials often pay more attention to a professional expert. Having a professional land use planner/attorney represent the Foothill Conservancy is in no way contrary to tenets of civility I espoused in my commentary.

-- Local developers often have professional planners and lawyers represent them at public meetings. Why is it wrong for a nonprofit citizens' group to do the same? Gold Rush Ranch's attorney, Dianne Kindermann, is at many of their public meetings. Dianne and I have a cordial, professional relationship that dates back many years. Again, having experts involved in just part of the process.

-- Litigation is not uncivil or disrespectful. When cities or counties violate the law, it is largely up to citizens to hold them accountable (a group can sue only over a legal violation, not simply because it disagrees with a decision). It's just part of the process. State planning and environmental law ought to mean something. Don't you agree?

-- That said, you might be interested to know that Foothill Conservancy has filed all of two lawsuits in its 19-year history. The first set general plan law precedent at the Court of Appeal (Families Unafraid to Uphold Rural Eldorado v. County of El Dorado). One of our our co-plaintiffs in that litigation was the City of Plymouth. The other suit we filed was quickly resolved without ever going to hearing, which was our goal. We filed it only because we were up against a deadline, and we fully expected discussions to resolve the matter. But yes, if all else fails, when a local government breaks the law, litigation is sometimes the only way to ensure a fair hearing of the issues.

There's a big difference between sticking up for good planning -- even if it means holding local government to the law -- and denigrating people who disagree with you.