Open Government Ex Ante: My talk to Open Government Chicago

25 04 2013

Good discussion at the end of the video too. Thanks to Joe Germuska and Dan O’Neil for the invite.

Transparency and Honest Counsel in the Mayor’s Office

14 02 2012

Mr. Mayor, why won’t you tell this woman what your staff was saying about her dead grandchild?

That’s the devastating question Chicago Tribune reporter David Kidwell leaves unasked at the end of his forceful article on the Mayor’s refusal to release his staff’s internal communications regarding the city’s plan to build a network of red-light cameras across the city. I’m not giving a blockquote to encourage you to read the article. Go ahead, then come back. Or, open it in a new tab and switch back and–you know what, you know what you’re doing.

The full transcript of Kidwell’s contentious interview with the Mayor, released by the Tribune as a companion piece to the article, is a winding, gruff dialog between approaches to transparency, accountability, and even democracy. At times frankly insulting (“I mean this insulting so get it right”) and at times sounding like legal wrangling in a courtroom (“You said there is a disconnect. That’s a conclusion. How do you know there’s a disconnect?”), Kidwell and Emanuel argue about just what transparency means and just how voters are supposed to hold their elected leaders accountable.

Throughout the interview, the Mayor is frustrated that the Tribune seems to have decided what “transparency” means–e.g., full access to internal administration decisionmaking–and passes judgment on his commitment to his transparency pledge based on their interpretation. The Mayor repeatedly chides the Tribune for ignoring the will of the voters on the matter–diminishing the Tribune’s concerns as out of step with the type of transparency people want. This is, at first glance, the “voters don’t care about process, just results” philosophy.

But that’s not all it is, and–I can’t believe I’m writing this–I have to side, with some reservations, with the Mayor.

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Green Energy and Land Use: The Flip Side

29 08 2011

In my post about the resistance of locals to wind farms, I noted that the power locals can exert over these kinds of major planning initiatives is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can give ill-informed or myopic ad-hoc groups significant power to derail what is a national economic objective.

On the other hand, consider the Longview. The Longview export facility, that is.

In that instance, it was local environmentalists, with help from larger regional and national organizations, fighting a export facility that was to handle millions of tons of coal a year. Their contention was that moving that much coal through the area and storing it at the facility in Longview would have deleterious public health effects, and also contribute generally to the (particularly Chinese) appetite for coal, contributing to global warming. The developer for their part insisted that the coal was cleaner coal from the Midwest and that intensive measures were being taken to ensure that transport and storage weren’t a problem–and that it was self-defeating to just sit back while Chinese factories burned dirtier coal from elsewhere.

These groups organized locally to pressure County and State officials, and (temporarily) won. They used local and state land use regulatory systems to engage with the developer.

It seems to me that most people reading this would look more favorably on what happened in the latter case than what landowners do to keep wind farms from being developed–but they are perfectly identical, at least as to process and democratic participation. Given the significant degree of discretion in such permitting situations–there are rarely hard thresholds that would automatically preclude a “bad” project versus a “good” one–I’m not certain what a structural fix to the this problem for green energy would be. Taking permitting power away from localities would impermissibly disenfranchise local communities.

Green Energy and Land Use

25 08 2011

If you’re like me, when you drive past a wind farm it’s a little cheery. They have a calming, old-timey look, they’re good for the Earth, they’re innovative but intuitive. A simple machine with huge potential.

But you may be surprised to find out that there are people who hate wind farms. Loathe them. And they are notoriously difficult to build. There are a bunch of reasons for this that touch on a variety of political and policy issues:

1. Permitting. You build wind farms in rural places. County governments dominate rural places because most of the land is not incorporated into municipal governments. County governments therefore have to promulgate regulations for building wind farms. Now, these farms are typically huge, and they have to be sited according to the performance of the wind–you can’t just plop them anywhere. These two facts together mean that you often have to deal with several counties at a time, which may have different rules–and different demands. The major regulations are the zoning permits–how do you zone for a wind farm, which is essentially a non-contiguous collection of 0.1 acre sites spread across miles? Well, you have to get either a conditional permit, conditional use permit, or special use permit (same thing, different names). Special use permits are a “higher” designation, and thus compel greater scrutiny–including quasi-judicial hearings–and usually allow governments to put conditions on passage–for example, they can require developers to dedicate money for road repairs, emergency response, and other public services. They can also limit site selection–for example proximity to property lines–and spacing, often to accommodate aerial pesticide planes. Obviously onerous conditions like these can kill a project.
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