I decided not to reapply for the 2012-2013 term and will, with great relief, let someone else take the seat I occupied for the last two years. I have made no secret of my displeasure and frustration with the Olympia Planning Commission’s inability to complete its work timely or even accomplish its objectives in the first place so I don’t think I need to write more about why I didn’t reapply.
While I was able to participate in some very controversial and interesting deliberations, there is actually only one that I view with particular pride and I want to use that deliberation as a microcosm for my experience on the OPC. It spawned some important questions that I will take with me as close this laborious chapter in my life.
That deliberation considered the amendments to the Mobile Food Cart statute which proposed to extend the permitted time that a food cart can stay in the same place in the city. It was memorable and extremely frustrating for a strange reason: I found myself taking up arguments about the primacy free markets and individual self-interest that I generally don’t espouse in most contexts. I also noticed that those commissioners, who typically do argue in favor of free markets and the imperative of individual action, were arguing in support of some sort of socialized business environment in order to free us of the potential dangers of food carts (e.g. state protected businesses to protect free markets). It was fascinating because I have never been able to understand exactly what provoked such atypical positions during that deliberation. Of course the context was critically important, but that was just one element. It led me to spend many hours considering how much we really believe what we think we do, (if, in the first place, we bother considering what we believe without a specific problem) and how much the groups in which we roam actually influence those beliefs. In essence how and why do we decide? Furthermore, how do we decide when we’re serving in a representative capacity and not necessarily facing the direct consequences of our decisions?
The OPC is interesting application of this question because not only do most of the commissioners not deal directly with the ramifications of its decisions, but it is not even the final decision maker (which of course is the city council). The Mobile Food Vender deliberation took this question to an extreme because it called into question much of what I had taken for granted before that deliberation began. In other, much higher profile deliberative bodies, you can almost always predict the results: there is a long track record of appellate court judges, most notably the Supreme Court of the United States; in the legislative assemblies of almost any state or nation, the political party is the most important consideration followed closely by the donor base; finally, even in local city councils, including our own, one can probably fairly accurately predict which councilmembers would fall on whichever side of the issue in question.
The Olympia Planning Commission however is a little different. Only a handful of people outside the staff and the commissioners themselves pay attention to what happens there. Hearings are very rarely widely attended; but even they are, most people usually devote their attention and efforts at the final decision-maker rather than the group recommending the policy. So the commissioners are able to recommend what they believe is best for their city in a manner uniquely free of special interests.
Thus, I return to my initial question, what makes us decide what we decide? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it is to be found in linear causation. That makes explanations difficult because we’re naturally drawn to such simple cause and effect. On the other hand, it makes for a wealth of potential blog posts about different group deliberations in the local government context if we include the City Council, County Commissioners, Intercity Transit Authority, LOTT and Port Boards, and their advisory committees.
Of course, I would not care at all if I didn’t feel that these decisions affect my life and my community—and that means your life and community. For that reason, each of us should care. We all contribute to the whole here in Olympia, and Thurston County. The OPC, just like the other groups I mentioned, does impact our lives, though those impacts aren’t often apparent to the casual and sometimes even dedicated observer. Even when one is interested in the instrumentalities of community governance, there is a huge learning curve. Thus, the job of someone writing about a planning commission as a piece of the larger context is exceedingly difficult, but that is a challenge I intend to undertake. As you’ve seen by now, I’m interested in the theory as well as its applications and I’m not sure exactly where we’ll end up. At least we can take pleasure in the knowledge that interminable deliberations like the SMP have not dissuaded me from moving on to subjects of interest in the meantime.