Sunday, April 02, 2006

Column 78 - Democracy in Action

Having lived in Incline for almost 11 years now, I’ve seen my share of community controversy. We’ve had the Chateau controversy, the skateboard park, issues over the beaches, golf and tennis personnel, and of course the perennial dog park issue.

The recent debate over IVGID’s purchasing 5 acres of land at Incline Lake for $1 million was a controversial as any I’ve seen, but was different in some important ways that, I think, show how much we’ve grown as a community.

I don’t know how many people attended the IVGID Board’s meeting last Wednesday, but the room was more than packed, with a significant number of people standing in the lobby. The debate began (or continued, actually) with the Board discussing the pros and cons and asking questions of IVGID staff and others that were clear and thoughtful, however pointed they may have been. The debate among the Trustees was respectful without losing any of its force. Then, when Chairman Bohn opened the floor for public comments he divided the room with pros lined up on one side, cons on the other and neutral commenters in the middle. The comments went on for some two hours, and the tenor of the debate was again rational and respectful, though by no means dispassionate. The Board sat until 10 pm and when everyone present who wished to be heard had been heard, they voted in favor of the issue 3 to 2, a margin that, I think, reflected the community’s sentiment.

I have not always been a fan of IVGID Boards. In my early years here I was “asked to leave” more than one Board meeting after loudly objecting to what I felt were unfair or high-handed interactions with the residents who were present. This Board, however, went out of its way to hear every voice on the issue and their internal debate reflected not only their own views, but the input they had received. It was a show of participatory local government at its finest.

One complaint I have heard from time to time around controversial local issues is that the Board didn’t listen. I don’t think anyone can claim that about this Board on this issue, unless their criterion for listening is agreement. Personally, my criterion for listening is learning – if I walk away from a conversation having learned something, I have listened. If the person with whom I am speaking has learned something from my view, I have been listened to. Realistically, I think this is a more realistic criterion for listening than agreement, particularly on complex issues where a variety of views are being expressed. By my observation, this Board learned and listened, and whether you agree with their decision or not, they gave it their best and I congratulate each of the 5 Trustees.

Now the real work begins. As Trustee Gene Brockman pointed out at the meeting there has been, from the beginning, a ‘chicken and egg” problem that has complicated debate on the purchase. One often-heard objection has been that no concrete plan has been submitted for the use of the land (though many ideas have been advanced). On the other hand, the Board was loath to commit staff time and IVGID funds to the creation of a business plan before it was decided whether the land would be bought. Arguments could be made for planning first versus purchasing first, and the Board opted for purchasing first. Now, assuming the purchase will be consummated (this depends in part on approval from the State), we need to see which of the possible uses provides the best return on investment and that will be the occasion for another round of decision making. While a Nordic Ski Center has been the idea that has been heard the most, consideration must be given to year-round uses and to business issues including profitability and ROI. Other ideas have been advanced, including leaving the land in its natural state, perhaps selling the coverage to recoup the purchase price. Here again all voices should be heard and, based on the Board’s exemplary performance in making the purchase decision, we can, I think, expect a clear and participatory process.

Ain’t democracy grand?

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