Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Monday, March 19, 2007

My Least Favorite Argument

I don't often do this, but I thought I'd take a moment to discuss of the arguments that I've heard on the circus reform issue since it was on the front page of the Star Tribune. Here's the argument, paraphrased:

"With all the other problems we haven't yet solved, you're wasting your time on this?"

I have now had this argument used against several initiatives I have initiated or supported: the arsenic right-to-know ordinance, the Civilian Review Authority reforms, the resolutions opposing the Iraq war and supporting a Department of Peace, the Council effort to "ban the box," the Condo Conversion ordinance, etc.

I have heard this very rarely from Second Ward constituents. More often, it has been residents of other wards or other cities. I have also heard it from some of my Council colleagues.

I disagree with the basic assumptions of this argument, on the following points:

- Policymakers can and must do more than one thing at once. This is one of the skills that campaigns teach. The publicity afforded to a given topic is not in any way related to the amount of time it takes to work on. On the circus reform ordinance, my office has spent a tiny fraction of the time and attention we give to a larger, obviously much more important initiative such as the Youth Violence Prevention Steering Committee.

- Other issues that we currently understand to be very important have in the past been derided with this same argument: global climate change, environmental policy, civil rights, etc. You name it, and someone has probably said "why on earth are they wasting their time with that?"

- Policymakers are here to make policy, not to carry it out. It is not my role, nor is it my colleagues', to personally be out on the street fighting crime. If people have ideas that policymakers can be putting our time into, I always want to hear them.

- The big, difficult problems in our society (crime, poverty, homelessness, environmental degradation, etc) do not lend themselves to quick, easy fixes. Minneapolis puts a large percentage of our resources into these problems, and no one is pushing to change that. On the other hand, no one expects to find the magic cure for violence and poverty that will solve all of our woes. These endemic problems are therefore qualitatively different from small issues like circus reform, which have a start date, an end date, and a final result. And because these more important problems will likely never be fully solved, this argument can become a permanent exuse for inaction.

- In my experience, this argument is chiefly used to stifle discussion and dissent. Rather than debating a proposal on its merits, this argument aids those who seek to attack someone's right to even raise the issue. I do not think this is democratic or healthy, and that's the chief reason I don't use this argument. Last year, my colleague Robert Lilligren brought forward a proposal to ban walking down any alley but one's own. I strongly opposed the ordinance, but I did not question Robert's right to bring it forward. Democracy means people bringing up ideas for change - even those someone else might find wrongheaded or silly - and having them debated in a respectful and deliberative manner.

A related argument that I have heard from some of my colleagues is even worse: "why are you wasting our time on this issue if you don't have the votes to get it passed?"

I say this argument is even worse, because the above objections add a presumption that policymakers should be doing our work behind closed doors, out of the public's gaze, and only bringing something forward when we're sure we have a majority vote in favor. This is not how we are supposed to craft public policy in Minneapolis, and could constitute a violation of the State's Open Meeting Law.

So what do you think? Are these good and defensible arguments? What are your least favorite types of arguments?


At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Colleen Timmer said...

I think these are good arguments. I personally agree that the democratic process is about having the right to voice your opinion, regardless of what priority it holds for others. I personally feel the circus reform issue is an important one, and one that I am grateful is being considered. I agree that comments like, "why are you wasting your time on this issue," are said in order to stifle the democratic process. Just think, many "important" issues of the past were once considered small and minute to the a majority of the population (slavery, civil rights, women's suffrage, etc.).

At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Colleen Timmer said...

I agree. I think the argument "why are you wasting your time on this small issue," is one that is done to stifle the democratic process. Furthermore, the issue of circus reform is one that is certainly of great importance to me. After all, if one looks back, historically many "important issues" were once considered small and unimportant to the vast majority (women's suffrage, civil rights, slavery, etc).


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