Demands by anti-government ideologues to remove me from the SLO County Planning Commission are based on the premise that “activists” are unfit for public service because they bring an unacceptable level of “bias” to their work. Their arguments present an opportunity to discuss the role of activism in public life and the nature of bias in the decision-making process. It’s an important discussion because demonization of public figures is increasing.
The current obsession with rooting out “bias” in government is directly linked to recent shifts in political power. Republicans drilled for evidence of bias in Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. They found red meat in her inspirational speeches to young Latinos. Suspicions that Sotomayor will be an “activist” judge were voiced by members unconcerned with the 200-year-long bias of the overwhelmingly white, male court.
Locally, accusations of “bias” and “activism” are leveled against me because I work for the Coastal Commission, I once worked for ECOSLO, and/or because my brother works for the Sierra Club. Critics assert that these associations render me incapable of making fair and impartial decisions. Are they right?
Essentially, an activist is one who pushes for political change. Activists have driven every meaningful reform movement in this country, starting with the struggle for colonial independence from British rule. Throughout history, abolitionists, suffragists, labor leaders, civil rights activists, consumer rights advocates, and environmentalists have fought for the common good. Many of them eventually found themselves in important public positions, starting with the Framers of our Constitution.
President Obama, former State Senator Tom Hayden, Congressman John Lewis, and S.F. Supervisor Harvey Milk are recent examples of activists whose causes carried them into office.
I’m not implying that I share the same qualities as Thomas Jefferson or Barack Obama. I reference them to underscore a point: activists’ experiences can translate quite well into public life.
Here in our own backyard we have many activists serving in public positions. Deanne Gonzalez, District 1 Parks Commissioner, a founding member of the property rights group, POPR; Charlie Whitney, chairman of the Santa Margarita Advisory Council, an indefatigable champion for the Santa Margarita Ranch development; and Noah Smukler, former Surfrider chapter president, now a Morro Bay city councilman, are examples. Clearly, activists can make important, appropriate contributions through public service. Are these public servants biased? Or are they expressing their values through their actions?
Webster’s dictionary defines “bias” as: “A personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment … an unfavorable opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason.” If my Planning Commission record showed a pattern of “unreasoned judgments,” thoughtless conclusions, or lack of knowledge, then I would deserve the accusation of bias. But the opposite is true.
For the record, I always base my votes on evidence in the record applied to the law. Period. This sometimes means I vote for projects I don’t personally like, or vote against outcomes I would prefer to see realized. Moreover, I always articulate the specific, substantive reasons for my votes. This is the antithesis of bias. It is informed decision-making. Of all the criticism leveled against me over the years, nobody’s ever identified a single vote where I’ve violated or ignored the law, profited from an action, acted capriciously, or allowed personal feelings not rooted in legitimate, legal concerns to influence my vote.
I believe this is what drives some people crazy over my service. It’s not my votes, per-se. After all, I am only one of five. It’s because I construct strong, rational arguments for my actions.
I bring an environmental perspective and expertise to the commission. This is no less valuable than the agricultural, construction, planning, and business perspectives and expertise provided by my colleagues and shouldn’t be confused with bias. Diversity is essential to sound decision-making. One might argue that the failure of the Founding Fathers to guarantee the rights of women, outlaw slavery, and provide for universal suffrage was precisely because people who identified with women, blacks, and the landless weren’t present at the deliberations. The absence of diversity led to decisions we would later come to regret and redress.
Like other politically loaded words (“socialist”, “liberal”), the labels “activist” and “bias” are being used to discredit the messenger while ignoring the message. “Bias” is essentially code for anybody with an opinion different from the accuser.
The politics of demonization have become a feature of contemporary politics. The losers are principled discourse, independent analysis, and responsible stewardship of public trust resources.
I do test assumptions. I ask questions. I verify facts and occasionally find them lacking. These things make some people uncomfortable, others angry, and still others file grand jury complaints. But I believe the public deserves to know the details of the land use planning process.
So, can applicants expect a fair hearing at the planning commission? Of course. All commissioners are individuals of extraordinary integrity. All meetings are staffed by county counsel, ensuring rigorous legal oversight. A majority vote is required for any action, and everything can be appealed to the board of supervisors. There’s no way one commissioner could derail a process with so many checks and balances. I haven’t kept track of my all my votes, but my guess is that I vote in favor of projects at least 80 percent of the time.
What’s really at issue here is whether our democratic system is resilient enough to withstand open debate among decision-makers with differing points of view as San Luis Obispo enters the 21st Century. I hope it is.
Sarah Christie chairs the County Planning Commission and is legislative coordinator of the California Coastal Commission. Send comments to her via the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.