Draft (October 2007)

Civility run amok: Lies are bad ... so don't you dare point them out

Part 3 of "The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making"

By Douglas Moran

The proper role of civility in debates is to keep the focus on the issues - the facts, tradeoffs and priorities - and keep personalities out. However, in the Palo Alto process, a perverse version of civility is too often used to thwart reasoned, fact-based consideration of issues by protecting the falsehoods proffered by favored parties.

For example, several years ago, I was involved in an issue where the presentation of the leading advocate included a phantom $6 million a year of benefits. This was not an inadvertent mistake - during presentations to other groups, this error had been pointed out, and acknowledged, multiple times, yet it stayed in the presentation. When I spoke later in the meeting, I focused on the inadequate financial analysis, and cited the $6 million/year as "a previous speaker" being "confused." When I finished, the then-Mayor launched into an extended admonishment directed at me about "personal attacks." Neither I nor multiple other people at the meeting could figure out how I had crossed the line. I asked the then-Mayor and he told me "People could figure it out." Message received: Better for the City to squander millions of taxpayer dollars than risk an insider being briefly embarrassed for an attempted deception.

More commonly, pointing out falsehoods simply gets you ignored. Council members claim they must treat speakers "with respect" as a rationale for not challenging even outrageous falsehoods. For example, consider the developer who didn't want to test his property for likely insecticide contamination - his consultant testified that there weren't "pesticides" in the soil - otherwise they would have killed the grass and trees. Council nodded politely and took no action.

Council routinely allows developers to supply implausible numbers to avoid paying for some impacts of their projects, thereby shifting those costs onto the taxpayers. Take the developer who wanted to overbuild a site next to an already congested intersection but didn't want to pay for traffic improvements. He proposed 177 housing units and R&D space for 140-200 employees. His consultant stated that this would generate only 87 trips during the morning peak. Council didn't question the methodology or otherwise show skepticism. Apparently, it would have been "disrespectful" - it would have suggested the consultant was so unprofessional as to skew the data in favor of his client.

Another approach used by housing developers to avoid paying for impacts is to claim that very few of the occupants will have children (children cause additional car trips, need space to play, ...). And the City accepts such claims, despite experience after experience after experience.

The latest example is the not-yet-complete housing at the former Hyatt Rickeys which has already produced a flood of children into the schools. Again, it's worth millions of taxpayer dollars for Council to avoid the unpleasantness of having to question, and reject, such claims.

Every now and then a Council member is so appalled by the falsehoods that he or she will ask a question indicating that he or she is not being deceived. However, this rarely receives any support from other Council members, and thus goes nowhere. And asking more than the infrequent question garners the visible displeasure of other Council members.

True civility requires making choices: Council's policy of "showing respect" for all speakers and their "facts" represents an impossibility. When you accord the same "respect" and apparent weight to a concocted "fact" as you do to painstakingly conducted, careful research, you are actually displaying contempt for the latter.

Falsehoods are not the only area where "civility" is used as an excuse to avoid taking action against abuse of the process: It is means acquiescing to bullies, provided they are powerful or otherwise well-connected. For example, one (outgoing) Council member routinely grossly distorts the statements and concerns of normal residents for the purpose of ridiculing and trivializing them. And her colleagues say and do nothing. Preserving the thin veneer of "civility" is more important than treating the underlying rot in the process.

In other cultures, "damning with faint praise" may be an appropriate way to express opposition, but in this country it is often misunderstood, and occasionally deliberately exploited. Yet, Council continues to engage in this practice, despite being burned. I don't want to even think how much this "civility" has cost the taxpayers in bad decisions.

If the guiding principle is "Everyone is entitled to their own facts," is it any surprise that Council decisions are so often dismissed as simply raw politics, the exercise of influence by established special interests or the ability of advocates to pack the Council Chamber with supporters?

For the next City Council, we need members who believe that their first priority is making good decisions for the City, not going along to get along. Actual facts and logic are critical to delineating the options and the tradeoffs, with the role of politics being how those choices are prioritized.