Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 144 – TRPA and the Tragedy of the Commons

John Singlaub has resigned as Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) after five years in that position. In his letter of resignation to Chairman Allen Biaggi, he included that the position is "relentlessly grinding on the individual who sits at the helm of TRPA, both mentally and physically." That statement, made in the face of John's also saying that this was his "'dream job,' and working with the …TRPA staff…has been rewarding," got me wondering – why should that be so?

While I doubt I'd get unanimous agreement for this, I contend that John has done a good, maybe excellent job at TRPA. To compare him to his predecessors, particularly his immediate predecessor, would be to damn him with faint praise, but in the early days of his tenure the change was remarkable. John took the contentious agency in the direction of transparency, responsiveness, customer service, and efficiency to a level that was beyond anything in its history. Sure there were mistakes (remember the guard rails on Route 267) and things didn't move as quickly or decisively as we might have liked in some instances (see "shorezone"), but in general the improvement over the past five years has been significant.

So this guy has arguably been effective in dealing with some really difficult constituencies – the Governing Board, two state governments, two county governments, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Club, boaters, hikers, anglers, IVGID, PUDs, the list goes on and on, and would be incomplete without mentioning the TRPA staff who, under John's leadership, went from being known as internally focused bureaucrats to being customer-centric and responsive. And now, after honorably fulfilling his commitment to serve for five years, is ground down and sees resigning as the only way to take care of himself. Why?

In almost 14 years living at the Lake, I've watched as public officials, both elected and appointed, as well as those who aspired to public service have been subjected to attacks, abuse, political undermining, and relentless criticism, all in the name of passionate commitment. Don't get me wrong, I am all for scrutiny and even criticism of public officials, but as I've said many times I think that criticism needs to be informed, rational, and above all not personal. In dealing with those many constituencies of TRPA (and the above list is only partial), no one could have pleased everyone.

At its essence, a job like John's has to be about making decisions for the common good. In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay in the journal Science called "The Tragedy of the Commons. This article has had an enormous influence in a variety of areas of science that study human cooperation. The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals acting independently and in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen. Hardin used a metaphor of residents of a village grazing their cattle a shared piece of land (the commons). While it is in each residents interest to graze as many cattle as possible on the land, if they do so, the commons will be destroyed. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and everyone suffers.

True story: a boater who come to the Lake did everything he could to avoid having his craft inspected for invasive species, apparently for no other reason than that he didn't like the idea of anyone telling him what they can and can't do. Faced with that kind of attitude, anyone in John's position (or Bill Horn's, or Katy Simon's or Ted Fuller's…) had better be ready to have his actions scrutinized, criticized, and even attacked. That's fair game and comes with the territory.

But I contend that it's not the scrutiny, not the criticism, not even the attacks on decisions that wears people in these jobs down. Certainly it's not people's passionate commitment to the environment. Rather I think it's two things: first it's the ad hominem nature of the attacks –what is attacked is the person, not the decision – and second I think it's the obstreperous nature of the criticism – too often the criticism is like the guy with the boat – it's about how I want it done, about my ox that's being gored, and to hell with the common good.

And that's what grinds our public servants down.

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