The democratic process

The democratic process

It is imperative that we participate in the democratic process, now more than ever.  As the world is often more interested in profit than people or planet, it is our duty to represent ourselves against corporate interests.  That means paying attention to local issues, writing letters to the editor, sending letters to government and attending public input forums.

I got the opportunity this summer to be involved with an important issue in Bradenton, Florida.  A pair of developers wish to take the longest untouched stretch of Gulf of Mexico coastline in the area and build a giant development on it – basically a small city.  To do this, they would like to change the rules that other developers have had to play by for the past 20 years or more.  That means changing some text in the Comprehensive Plan and changing the accompanying Future Land Use Map.  They want a higher density of commercial development and the ability to build a marina, the impact of which would be irreversible damage to the local marine environment.

In order to build local opposition to these county rule changes, I spent some time with other volunteers gathering signatures on petitions that would be presented to the county commissioners.  This exercise really raised awareness of the issues.  I, along with hundreds of others, wrote letters to the commissioners, which were entered into the public record for the issue.  Then, we encouraged everyone to show up at the meeting where these issues would be decided.

I prepared a presentation to give during the 3 minutes each individual is allowed to speak at the meeting of the county commissioners.  I’m a bit terrified of public speaking, so you can imagine how thrilled I was that this meeting was moved to the convention center.  It was huge inside, and almost 1000 people showed up.  That’s what I call participation!

Manatee County Commission

Democratic participation

The meeting started off with a report from the county on the issues.  We felt pretty optimistic after this as the two county attorneys seemed to be saying they should just say no.  The county report and the subsequent questions took several hours and was followed by the developers’ report as they were the applicants who had requested the changes.  They predictably said that their development along the shoreline would produce a “net environmental benefit.”  That is often developer code for “we will try some mitigation attempts that will not work or be completely useless.”

Net environmental benefit

Around four hours had passed before it was time for members of the public to speak, and my group did not speak until about 8 hours into the meeting.  By that time, the moderator had asked several times that people not repeat what others had said, so I had pared down my talk to three slides and added some handwritten notes to the front.  Below are Justin Bloomer of Suncoast Waterkeeper, myself and Charles Kovach who was our resident scientist this summer.

Justin Bloom - Suncoast Waterkeeper

Elsie Gilmore - Master of Environmental Law & Policy

Charles Kovach

On a geek note, I had printed my presentation notes to a PDF and put them on my tablet to refer to.  During the first 8 hours of the meeting, I was able to annotate the PDF in real-time using ezPDF Reader so they’d be accurate during my talk.  I was really impressed with the editing capabilities.

I left the meeting around 10:00 p.m., and there were probably still at least 100 people there.  It lasted until 2:00 a.m., and the vote didn’t go entirely our way.  The result is that this matter is far from over, which is the case with so many environmental issues that come to the table.  The work of an environmental activist is truly never done.  However, we do make progress.  And we can influence outcomes if we band together in numbers.  So, I urge you to get or stay involved with your local political process.

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