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Saturday, October 23, 2004

The People in the Room

This is a guest posting by Mike Byerly, chair of the Alachua County Commission. It was sent to The Gainesville Sun in response to its drubbing of himself an County Commissioner Penny Wheat for voting against the impact fee ordinance. He agreed to let me post it here also. I wanted to because it helps explain why The Sun consistently attacks good commissioners and shows how hypocritical The Sun's chief propaganda writer (editorial page editor) Ron Cunningham can be.

The People in the Room
By Mike Byerly

In a recent editorial recapping the impact fee issue, Sun opinion page editor Ron Cunningham wrote on the "spirit of compromise." Ironically, and characteristically, he pushed beyond policy discussion into a derogatory personal analysis of those with whom he disagrees.

The Sun likes to reduce all issues to a simplistic "developer/environmentalist" perspective, but all taxpayers are affected when private development necessitates new public infrastructure. Twice I've campaigned on the principle that private development should not be subsidized with public money, and promised to support impact fees on new development. In office, I've repeatedly compromised on goals and methods, on a variety of issues, but not on principles, or on the specific promises I've made. In representative government, predictable consistency is a virtue, not a vice.

A public referendum is the best method we have for determining what the public wants. In a 1988 general election referendum, an amazing 83% of Alachua County voters agreed with the proposition that "New growth and development should pay for infrastructure and public facilities for that new growth." The problem has only intensified since then.

After handsomely paying a nationally recognized expert on impact fees to calculate the actual per capita costs of new infrastructure in Alachua County, a 3-2 majority of the county commission dumped his estimates in favor of a politicized "stakeholder group" process. Three of the five designated stakeholders were the realtors' association, the builders' association, and the Chamber of Commerce, all virulently opposed to impact fees.

The outcome of this shotgun wedding was predictable. The deal they reached cut some fees by over half, some over a third, and will require the public to continue to subsidize over $2.5 million of infrastructure per year to serve new private development. The "compromise" may be politically expedient, but it's bad public policy, and I voted against it.

"Future commissions will have the option of raising the fees if it's deemed necessary," Cunningham writes, presumably with a straight face. Will he then condemn this future commission as "uncompromising?" Cunningham likes to accuse commissioners of cowardice when they fail to vote his way, and particularly when they fail to raise new revenues for the county's growing backlog of infrastructure, which he's fretted about for years. How bad must things become before he "deems it necessary?"

Moving beyond impact fees, Cunningham shares his views on the meaning of government.

"Governing is all about finding the middle ground, " says Cunningham. He idolizes the "deal broker" politician, whose vote on a given issue is essentially the sum total of political forces applied by the people assembled in the room where the decision is being made. It's a sure recipe for success in politics, but the problem with this approach to public policy is that "the people in the room" frequently don't represent the public at large. Cunningham seems to clearly understand this principle when applied at a safe distance, to state and federal politics, where it's fun and easy to categorize the people in the room as lobbyists, paid expert witnesses, special interest groups, etc. His comprehension conveniently fails at the local level.

Only the middle ground politicians "get things done," Cunningham believes. Of course, the middle ground is *defined* by advocates, not deal brokers. The real decisions are made by those who choose the issues and frame the parameters of the debate. Our local newspaper likes to reserve this power for itself, leaving the politicians to mop up on the stage the newspaper has built for them.

Virtually everything of enduring value ever accomplished in the political world existed, at least for a while, on the losing end of those 3-2 and 4-1 votes that Cunningham is so uncomfortable with. If a politician ultimately votes against a particular motion, it doesn't mean they've made no contribution. Without the steady pressure applied over the past few years by myself and Commissioner Penny Wheat, the two villains in Cunningham's editorial tantrum, the impact fee "compromise" he lauds would never have even made it onto the agenda.

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