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Citizen Participation in Government
By Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett December 2, 2008
Oregonians have prided themselves in citizen participation in their state government for nearly 150 years. Our open public meeting laws have required political decisions to be made in public, with ample opportunity for civic participation in the political process. Citizen boards, commissions, and advisory committees, have been established to counsel virtually every state agency. Our initiative process was established to allow direct citizen participation in forming statutes and constitutional amendments.
       How That Has Changed
In recent years, our political and radical environmental elite have determined that “all that public opinion” has become a significant liability in their plans for our future. That determination has resulted in significant efforts to directly, or indirectly, alter the opportunities for public participation.

The most recent assault is directed toward rendering our open meeting laws useless. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, the Agreement in Principle to remove the four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath River, as well as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s imposition of draconian air quality standards on the entire greater Klamath Falls area, are direct examples of decisions that were completed by the political and environmental elite, before the public had an opportunity to be heard. It certainly appears that the designation of Marine Reserves and Marine Protected Areas on the Oregon Coast is following the same pathway.

Impeding citizen contributions to public meetings is being honed into a new art form. Two commonly used methods include; public meetings manipulated by paid facilitators to reach a predetermined consensus, and the application of the Delphi Technique perfected by followers of Stuart Udall.

In the first scheme, the political and environmental elite hire a facilitator to help we citizens reach a consensus on what we believe. Wikepedia defines a facilitator as someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan to achieve them without taking a particular position in the discussion. A facilitator is neutral, helps move the discussion forward by keeping it focused on the objectives at hand, but does not direct the outcome of the conversation. Many facilitators are hired today to help the group reach a consensus that is predetermined by others before the meetings begin.
Ironically, the facilitators are usually paid with taxpayer dollars.

Subjects selected for discussion will always include the topics near and dear to the elites. Specific problems that require solutions are usually not identified. Never the less, solutions are suggested that are characterized as being beneficial to the whole of society. The audience is infiltrated with articulate proponents of those predetermined solutions to insure that they are discussed thoroughly and repeatedly. In order to reach consensus, participants are asked if they strongly agree, agree, somewhat agree, or disagree with statements in support of the outcomes preselected by the elite. Please note that in the structure offered the odds are three to one that some agreement will be articulated.

The facilitator then works the crowd to pressure compromise from those who have not yet agreed in order to reach consensus for the common good. Please note that in the format provided by the facilitator, any compromise by the dissenter results in some level of agreement, some level of consensus.

In the second scheme the Delphi Technique begins with an open meeting where anyone who wishes to express an opinion is afforded the opportunity to speak. Each opinion is captured in writing on a chart on the wall. Meeting organizers will be certain to have articulate, well versed individuals in the audience to introduce each objective that the organizers wish to advance.

When all opinions have been expressed, the charts are collected, and a group, pre-selected by the meeting organizers, will distill the comments into a few topics of common interest to be further discussed. Two things are certain. First, the audience will never see the charts again. Second, the topics that are selected to be discussed will always include those objectives that the meeting organizers planned to advance.

The audience is then self-divided into break-out groups in order to more thoroughly discuss the selected topics. The meeting organizers select a leader, or provide a facilitator, for each group. Of course the articulate members of the organizer team will select themselves for the appropriate discussion group. All comments will once again be written down on a chart on the wall. With the help of the facilitator, the articulate members of the organizer team will be certain to keep their assigned objectives front and center in the discussion.

When the discussions are completed, the organizers collect the charts in order to help them evaluate whether consensus has been achieved. The participants never sees those charts again either. Finally, the meeting organizers finish the meeting with summaries of what the break-out groups decided. They professionally include all topics discussed in their summaries, but emphasize the outcomes that they have predetermined. They will then ask if they have omitted anything. Usually no one objects because the meeting organizers have in fact at least mentioned each topic discussed.

Do not be surprised when they conclude that the participants have generally favored the pre-determined outcomes established by the meeting organizers. Also do not be surprised when that result is subsequently characterized as community consensus on their objectives.
  Indoctrination of Boards and Commissions
Originally, the boards, commissions, and advisory committees were made up of private citizens possessing broad contemporary knowledge of subjects such as agriculture, forestry, business, manufacturing, transportation and wildlife management. Over the past twenty years, a substantial change has occurred in the selection of those members. In general, they are now selected more for their political and environmental dogma, than for their knowledge of the most efficient management of the resources or the services.

Salient examples are the Board of Forestry that was originally made up entirely of foresters, but now has few members with actual forestry experience. The Oregon Water Resources Commission is now dominated by non-irrigators. No geologist currently serves on the Oregon Board of Geology. The direct result has been that the professional foresters, farmers, fishermen and highway builders selected to participate on these panels are always outnumbered by those selected primarily for their political or environmental views. The unfortunate outcome is management by political and environmental dogma rather than by scientific and economic principles.

   Defusing the Power of the Initiative
The actions, and the rhetoric, of many members of our state legislature, including most of the current leadership, demonstrate their distain for the peoples direct lawmaking authority. Each new legislative session brings innovative bills to further impede the initiative rights of our citizens.

Oppressive rules have been established regarding the form of petitions, who may collect petition signatures, who may finance petition gathering, and which signatures will be selected as valid by a partisan Secretary of State. State elections division employees and many county clerks are either unable or unwilling to help interested citizens traverse this maze of rules and regulations. Participation in the initiative process is further discouraged by establishing significant penalties for violation of the rules and regulations, and by public condemnation of those that run afoul of the opaque set of laws.
       Needed Action
In my opinion it is past time for Oregonians to take their government back. Whether it is caused by apathy, or by abject disgust, citizen non-participation is obviously not working.
Oregon’s elected officials and public employees all work for you. They only rule your future lives when you allow them to rule your lives.

We should all remember the positive outcome when nearly 20,000 of us stood in the streets of Klamath Falls in 2001 and just said no.

Become involved, become vocal, and refuse to be ignored.

Our next legislative session begins in January. Gail and I hope to see you there.
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