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Listening Without Hearing the Voice of Reason

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
October 7, 1999


Hierarchal institutions are like giant bulldozers- obedient to the whim of any fool who takes control. — Edward Abbey

Once again I had the dubious pleasure of attending a Carlsbad City Council meeting. I'm sure seeing me in the gallery two weeks in row, was not Mayor Bud's idea of a good time. This time I was there at the request of the Sierra Club's San Diego Chapter to speak against any city policy that removes street trees in residential neighborhoods in favor of road widening. I was one of 45 people who speaking out against yet another anti-environment scheme originating from city hall.

It was business as usual, as resident after resident stood up to address what they see as elected officials, and city staff, working at cross purposes with what they consider to be their quality of life. For nearly 3 hours residents informed the council that livability should take precedence over drivability. Overall, their message was one of protecting the environment and preserving community character. Meanwhile the council sat behind the dais looking angry and bored, and rather unamused.

After a short recess each council responded to the residents remarks. One by one they assured the speakers that they were listening, and that they would respond....later. "We have heard only opinions" was councilmember Ramona Finnila's response. Doing her imperial best, Ms. Finnila then suggested that education was the key, and that council would explain the history behind their policy to take land from homeowners to build sidewalks curbs and gutters, while forcing them to pay for these "improvments"...later.

The statement "Not everyone is going to be happy with council's decision" was a testament to Finnila's gift of understatement. I actually think she heard nothing but white noise during the public's testimony. With her mind already made up, content with the status quo, she was just going through the motions. Mayor Bud's big contribution to the discussion was asking people to stop applauding those speaking against the "improvement" of old Carlsbad, and to inquire about the undergrounding of utilities. it was if he had not heard anything about the trees. Out of site, out of mind. My favorite part however, was when Bud forgot Councilwomen Nygaard's last name.

Leaving the meeting, I was approached by a few people complaining of how city officials listen with deaf ears. In defense of the council, I suggested to the residents that the council did listen... just not to them. The voices they were hearing were the ones inside their head, and the ones that agreed with the ones inside their head, Which are more than enough thank you.

Selective hearing is a common trait among elected officials. It's the nature of the beast. The phrase "Money talks" was not created in a vacuum. Considering the rate of growth in the San Diego region over the last twenty years, is it any wonder why development interests are the ones with the loudest voice? Being heard by elected officials is easy when your megaphone is large campaign contributions. The plight of native habitat is hard to hear over promises of profit. And if its neighborhoods being threatened? Oh well, they can always build more hotels.

Here in coastal North County, city councils are practically begging developers to continue their assault on our native environment. In Oceanside parks and beaches are not protected from the council. In Encinitas, not only are residents not heard, city staff keeps changing the language. The mayor of Solana Beach regards Environmental Impact Reports as unnecessary impediments to the development agenda. and the growth machine rolls on.

Hopefully the numbers showing up to share their growing dissatisfaction with the Carlsbad City Council, is an indication of good things to come. As we move in to election season, this is the time to start building regional grassroot networks that will send the "growth for growth's sake" incumbents packing. The next five years will decide if San Diego will avoid succumbing to the urbanization that has destroyed Orange County and the Los Angeles basin. Five years to turn things around, that's it, otherwise we can kiss goodbye any hope of even the smallest semblance of environmental restoration.

Aside from officials such as Supervisor Slater and the team of of Holtz and Cameron in Encintas, listening to residents seems to be a low priority among those elected to serve. Why is this? Personally I think it is because we are to busy grumbling amongst ourselves. Last week at the Carlsbad Council meeting the crowd was impressive. Active and angry, an informed citizenry always is. When they appear in mass, citizens are a force to be reckoned with.

It is time elected officials start listening to the people who elected them. Not to do so, will be their undoing. Change is in the wind. We can hear it. Can they?

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