Saturday, January 28, 2017

What is in the best interest of the community?

That is the standard that I use when making any decision as a member of the City Council. Of course, the answer is not always apparent (law of unintended consequences, anyone?), and different people have different opinions as to what is the right answer, but before I vote or choose where to put my effort, this is the question I try to answer.

There has been some recent frustration bubbling up with Council members unwillingness to consider changes to City ordinance which would allow a microbrewery to sell alcoholic beverages in the City, or even to engage much in a discussion about it. In one comment, someone wondered why Councilmembers wouldn’t just do what’s best for the community. So I wanted to respond a little bit about what goes into my decision process about what is in the best interest of Provo. But before we do, let me address a couple other thoughts that have been expressed along with this frustration.

The Public Has Spoken!

I am grateful to the administrators and members of Provo Forward, Our Provo, and the new New Provo Developments. They have been a valuable resource to me before I joined the Council and continue to be now that I’m on the Council. As much as I enjoy frequenting them to hear the opinions and ideas of others and sharing a few of my own, it is a mistake to think that members of these groups are samples representative of the residents of Provo. Even if one of these groups (or the people who speak up in the groups) come to a consensus, that does not mean that it is the consensus, or even majority view, of the residents (or voters) in Provo.

But the Poll Proves It!

Speaking of gauging the majority view, I’m sure everyone here recognizes that the wording of a survey question will affect the outcome. If you word a survey question like, “Are you open-minded enough to want a brewery in the City, or are you a religious bigot wanting for force your morals onto everyone else?” I hope you wouldn’t interpret the lack of negative responses to mean that everyone in the City is for it. Before you point out that none of the poll questions in the groups were framed that way, consider that the hostile environment can be set before the poll question is asked. These groups, at times, have been quite hostile to differing opinions. It can be intimidating (and painful) to speak up when the rest of the posting members are aggressively promoting the opposite view. Note that before and while these polls were active, posts and comments were made similar to the fictitious poll question I wrote above. In the last “New Provo Developments” brewery poll, members were asked if Councilors should discuss the proposal. 46 votes were in favor, and 5 were against. This is out of 27,000 or so group members. Provo, by the way, has roughly 116,000 residents.

Moral Legislation!

Speaking of politicians forcing their morals on the public...I grew up in SLC, so I’m familiar with the arc of some of the political issues that happenings there over the past 25 years. It has surprised me how many issues now facing Provo have parallels with what happened in Salt Lake over the past few decades (take Trax and BRT, for example). For years Salt Lake had more lax laws regarding smoking on public property than many comparable cities around the Country. Anytime proposals were made to restrict smoking on the city or state level, howls would go up about government officials forcing their morals on others. It finally took an ex-Mormon and smoker by the name of Rocky Andersen to push through smoking prohibitions in public parks. No one could question his motives. It went from a moral issue to a public health issue.

So let’s get to some considerations when determining what’s in the best interest of the community.

Everyone Else is Doing It!

That is not an argument that I put much weight behind. Provo is a special place. We have a pretty good thing going. We are listed high on many national measures for quality of life. So I’m not too anxious to be like everyone else. That’s not to say that we can’t look to other places and learn from the things that they have tried. But on its own, “other people are doing it” doesn’t sway me much when weighing out what's in the best interest of the community.

I Don’t Understand It, So Change It!

When we don’t understand something, it is human nature to assume that it has no reason. “Well that’s a silly law, the people who put that into place must not have been thinking.” I try to approach existing laws with enough humility to assume that even if I don’t understand the reasoning, the people who enacted the law thought carefully about it and had a good reason. This is not to say that mistakes weren’t made in the past or that as the community and circumstances change we shouldn’t update our laws. But it does mean that it is incumbent on me to study and try to understand the intent of the law before I go about changing it willy-nilly. This can take a lot of time and effort. Which gets to the heart of the matter.

Just Do It Already!

Not only do I consider the community’s best interest when voting, but I also have to make this calculation when deciding where to put my effort and spend my time. Even if something, by itself, is in the best interest of the community, it may not be in our best interest to pursue if it displaces something of greater importance. You all know this already, it’s called opportunity costs, but it is easy to lose sight of.

Some people are passionate about allowing a brewery in Provo. For some, it feels like the most important thing. Others are very concerned about BRT. They may feel that it is the most urgent issue. Some are exasperated that I’m not jumping at the chance to wade through the fine print of contracts and GRAMAed email of other officials. For others, BRT isn’t even an afterthought and what they care about is how West Provo is or isn’t going to develop. For others, the Council’s position on rooftop solar is the only issue that matters to them. Some people are leaving Provo because of the impacts of zoning non-compliance (mostly over occupancy) on things like parking and noise. They can’t understand why the City can’t resolve the issue and enforce the law. Others are on the opposite side, wondering why the heavy hand of the government is persecuting people for living the way they want. I hear from people all the time who are passionate about issues. Many of them are frustrated when they don’t get the response from Councilors that they think their issue deserves.

When I first took office about a year ago, I had so many great ideas for tweaks to make the City a better place. By attending meetings and talking with City employees and residents, I ran my “to do” list up to 72, before I stopped adding. You can imagine my disappointment when the Council chose to select only 9 issues as priorities. Nine should be easy to accomplish, right? I was told that we could add more as we check some of them off the list. Guess how many we added? None. Take a look at the priorities that we set last year. Now, not everything that we accomplished last year was on this list, and we made a lot of progress on some of these issues, but consider how much work there is to do. I don't consider even one of these priorities as "checked off". My point is that there are so many important things to be done in the City, more than can be accomplished. We have to prioritize where we put our time. We have to chose which issues to engage in. Some of the more active members of the Council are already putting in 20-25 hours a week. Some of us are also trying to hold down full-time jobs. We are looking for ways to be more efficient and more effective. I often question if I’m putting my time where it matters most. These are difficult questions. I have made this blog a priority, I think communication and transparency are critical, but I sometimes wonder if the blog is worth the time investment. Could I have tackled another issue or two last year if I didn’t preview each meeting and file a meeting report afterward? There are many things that I regret not getting around to as a Council member, many ideas never floated, emails marked for responses that never happen, meetings not attended. At times I think that being on the City Council of Provo should be a full time job. But that would prevent many people, including myself, from serving.

Back to the Brewery!

Alright, with that background information, let’s consider the brewery request. If I remember what I was told, the brewery can operate in Provo -- they can brew beverages-- but they can’t sell their brews here. I do not know the details of why not. We obviously have bars in Provo, we have a state liquor store, and some types of alcohol are sold in grocery stores. And other places, including in Utah County, allow for brewpubs. Again, I’m not clear what prevents this in Provo. I have been asked if I would sponsor the item to be on a Work Meeting agenda. I ask myself, is it in the best interest of the community to sponsor this item? Is it in the best interest of the community for me to spend time on this? Is this going to improve the quality of life here? What’s the likelihood of it passing? What are the potential Pros? More vibrant downtown? Improved convention center draw? A business that some residents want? What are the potential Cons? Abuse of alcohol is the costliest of any drug in the US, with costs to the economy estimated at 2.5% of our GDP ( Schneider Institute for Health Policy, Substance Abuse: The Nation's Number One Health Problem, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, NJ, February 2001). Would this change to our code make any difference in the public health in Provo? Should I spend my time trying to learn more? What issue that I’m currently working on should it displace? How does it compare with say improving zoning compliance? Visioning for the Future? Plans for West Side Development? What impact would it have on the time and efforts of others? Other Councilors? City staff? Community Development generally works on the ordinance language for items like this. What else are they working on? The plan was to write a Neighborhood Master Plan for each of our 34 neighborhoods, it seems like we wanted to be a third or so done by now. We have completed three. We just approved a text amendment drafted by Community Development that will allow “The Mix at the Rivers Edge” to add the residential component of their project to the old zone that governs the current Plumtree Plaza. Community Development said that they would have preferred to propose a new Mixed Use zone, but instead just made modifications to the current SC3 zone, because of time constraints and their workload. I feel the City needs a Mixed Use zone, I asked them to try to work the creation of such into their priorities. Should work on the proposed brewery text amendment be a higher priority than the creation of the SC3 zone?

All this and much more have gone through my mind in just trying to decide if I want to take a closer look. After a rough appraisal of all of these questions, I decided that it is not in the best interest of the community for me to spend my time looking further into whether or not the Council should schedule a Work Meeting discussion on this item. I do not know enough to decide whether allowing brewpubs would have a net positive or net negative effect on our community. I have decided that there are more important things for me to work on. Speaking of which, I’ll now see if I can finish up the report for the 17 January meetings, and work on the proposed policies for Westside development for the subcommittee that I chair. If anyone is interested in that issue (which was the number 2 response of another Facebook group poll) check out our work here.

I wonder how many people made it this far. I realize the irony of writing such an essay about prioritizing the use of time spent serving the City. But hopefully you can see how a simple, "I have other priorities to work on" wouldn't tell the whole story.