When small groups with strong feelings organize to pressure local leaders, are they fulfilling the ideals of democracy? Does the clamor of mobilized activists make it harder for average people to be heard, or is it the duty of all citizens to exercise their voices?
"How do we deal with special interest groups?" Winona County Commissioner Marcia Ward asked during a strategic planning meeting of the County Board last Tuesday. "It's the old squeaky wheel gets the grease. We react to different things, but is it good for the community?"
During the "big picture" planning meeting, Board Chair Wayne Valentine and Commissioner Steve Jacob identified the influence of special interest groups as one of the greatest concerns faced by the county.
"I think it's one of our biggest threats," Valentine said. "For years I covered many, many governmental meetings. I've seen the same faces. The same people come before our board, the Planning Commission, the city of Winona government. They try to influence all of our decisions, but I think they are very well organized, whereas the rank and file citizen who may feel differently doesn't have that same organizational strength." At times, the "vocal minority" can drown out the "silent majority," the concerned commissioners agreed. Valentine called the groups "orchestrated" and added, "I just expect them to be in opposition to things."
Lobbying their elected officials "doesn't make them wrong," Commissioner Greg Olson chimed in. If the same people have been speaking out at public hearings for 30 years, "Well, they're still active," he added.
The activism of vocal minorities "requires deciphering what's a special interest and what is the wish of the majority," Jacob said. "It doesn't make them wrong or right, but it makes our job more difficult." The point is not that these interest groups should stop what they are doing, but that commissioners should be aware of them when considering public input, he explained in a subsequent interview. Valentine could not be reached for further comment before the Winona Post went to press.
The board spoke about special interest groups in mostly general terms, but frac sand opposition and the Bluff Land Environmental Watch (BLEW) were mentioned.
BLEW and another political organization, Landowners of Winona County (LWC), engaged in an interest group showdown over the 2011 zoning ordinance. Bluff protection advocates with bright yellow "approve" stickers filed into the County Board room, while property rights supporters drove tractors covered in "deny" signs around the Winona County Government Center in downtown Winona. Jacob was one of the leaders of LWC, and that fight is still alive; the County Board will consider zoning ordinance changes this month. More recently, representatives from various groups have attended nearly every Winona County and city of Winona meeting pertaining to the frac sand industry. When asked, Jacob specified that "I see frac sand as different. I do see that there's a trend in methods that people have learned to influence government, and I believe that the people who are opposed to frac sand are very genuine and there are many of them."
Groups: this is what democracy looks like
"Everyone should have the chance to voice their concerns," said Land Stewardship Project (LSP) Program Policy Organizer Doug Nopar, whose organization has advocated bluff protection and opposed sand mining. "It's disturbing that our county board chair thinks this is a problem. That's the democratic system."
It is not easy for citizens to speak up at public hearings, said BLEW leader Joe Morse. By labeling concerned citizens as "special interest groups," local leaders are "discouraging citizens from participating by dismissing citizens who are bringing up difficult problems." The involvement of citizens who care, he continued, is what makes U.S. democracy healthy. Often citizens bring new information to the table that helps officials make better decisions, Nopar noted. For Morse, commissioners "are threatening the democracy we live in" by decrying citizen activism. "They also must believe that democracy is a threat to Winona County. You can't have it both ways."
People have First Amendment rights to say what they want and associate with whom they want, pointed out LWC leader and Planning Commissioner member Don Evanson when asked whether interest groups have a negative impact on democracy. Still, local leaders "tend to listen and to discount the silent majority when they hear from the vocal minority, and it's likely that the majority is silent," he said. That can apply to both sides of local debates, the property rights advocate conceded, but progressives, he said, are by nature excited about change and thus more likely to be vocal.
"I can understand why Valentine's getting frustrated," Nopar said. Many of Valentine's constituents live near frac sand operations or along truck routes and they are not happy about it, Nopar added. Frac sand opponents may be vocal, but they are not a minority, he continued, especially not in directly-affected neighborhoods.
If the board thinks citizens are engaging in an inappropriate way, the board need to tell them what the proper way is, Morse said. "We need to know how we can present, talk, and communicate with officials so that we're heard and respected. That's what everyone deserves."
What makes a group's interests special?
Finding community consensus can be challenging, but defining "special interest groups" may not be easy either. The term tends to carry a negative connotation, while "public participation" carries a positive one. At what point ó if any ó participation and activism become "the hijacking of policymaking," as County Administrator Duane Hebert put it, is contentious. Groups on both sides of the zoning issue see themselves as supporting the common good, and, on both sides, those groups formed because citizens cared a great deal about the causes.
If citizen groups are special interests, what about businesses, Nopar asked. "I contend that it's a special interest when elected officials are looking out for the financial interests of a select few individuals."
"The question is 'Whatís a special interest?'" Morse continued. It could be "any group, organization or business that [elected officials are] hearing from." After all, "everyone has interests," he added.
When asked, Ward, gave a broad definition of special interest groups as "people with a common goal on a topic." These groups often provide valuable research, but leaders need to be aware of each group's slant, she said.
Is Land Owners of Winona County a special interest group? "If you want to label [BLEW] as a special interest group, then you have to label the land owners as a special interest," Evanson said.
"I suppose you would call it a special interest group," Jacob said of the property rights organization he helped form, but there is a difference, he added. When the Land Owners of Winona County presented a petition against the zoning ordinance, all of the signatures were from Winona County residents, while BLEW's petitioners "came from across the nation," Jacob stated. "They are very organized, they've got national support, and they're bringing it to a local level."
It is true that people from various states signed that petition, but BLEW did not canvas the country for signees, Morse commented. "All of those signatures were collected in Winona County," he said. If petitioners hailed from outside the county it was because they chose to visit the area, and the value of attracting people to Winona County is part of the point for BLEW, he added.
Perhaps a more substantial difference between BLEW and LWC is the fact that LWC's leader was elected to public office. Elections say a lot, Jacob pointed out. "That's the time when the silent majority will often speak. That's where I determine the silent majority versus the vocal minority." He added, "Any other special interest group is welcome to get behind a candidate, get that candidate to take a position, and get elected."
How should elected officials decide?
Voting for money-saving initiatives is easy, but when elected officials have to decide divisive issues, the pressure mounts. When they cannot make everyone happy, how should local leaders go about deciding which way to vote? How heavily should they weigh direct citizen input, their knowledge of the community, their hearts, or their platforms?
"It's humbling," Jacob said of sitting at the commissioners' table when public input is impassioned. "You feel a lot of gravity from these citizens. Their concerns are really weighing heavy on their minds. You want to be compassionate."
When push comes to shove, sticking to the platform you were elected on is perhaps the best way of staying true to the community's wishes, Jacob said.
"It's a combination of things," Nopar said when asked how leaders should make decisions. "If you're running for office, you have certain values that you believe in, but ideally you're willing to be held accountable by people who are concerned about something."
Other local leaders were less interested in the role interest groups have in decision-making. "We are there to listen to anyone and everyone," commissioner Jim Pomeroy said. "I put the same sort of credence in all testimony." At the end of the day, leaders have to draw on their day-to-day interactions with people, as well, he said. All those sources give leaders a pretty good idea of where the community stands, so gauging public opinion is not difficult, he continued.
"So far I haven't found it that difficult to sort that out," agreed Winona Mayor Mark Peterson. Many of the same citizens and groups who speak out at county hearings also step up to the council chamber microphone. Council members are not always swayed by public testimony, but encourage it nevertheless. "The more the merrier," Peterson said.
"As far as special interest groups or vocal minorities, I treat them just like I would anybody else and that is to listen and try to understand a perspective and a point of view and then make a good decision based on all the people who have contacted me about an issue and my own experience and expertise with city government," said Winona City Council member Allyn Thurley. "Thatís what voters have elected us to do."
"I actually like it when people share what they think of whatís going on in the community," council member Michelle Alexander said. "At least it gives you an idea of what's going on out there." Alexander explained that her knowledge of the community plays into her decisions, as well, but she welcomes comments. "So many people donít pay attention to the local government, so its nice when they do," she added.