Public dialogue and the smoking ordinance
Daviess County government’s recent action on a smoking ordinance serves as a valuable case study in grassroots democracy.
The initiative was rooted in growing concerns over the dangers of secondhand smoke and sparked by sporadic regulatory successes across the nation and state, most recently in Lexington, Louisville and Georgetown.
Proponents of the ordinance based their position on credible research and surveys by independent polling firms. While acknowledging legitimate business concerns that could be affected by an ordinance, they stayed focused on the public interest – as opposed to any private or financial interest.
While this is a virtuous framework, the process would have been better served if information had been assembled by a third party or a task force representing diverse perspectives. As it was, the released information was associated with groups that had already staked out a position. Opponents assumed that the material was slanted.
Without malicious intent, zestful advocates leapfrogged the vital step of deliberation. The process would have benefited from a series of neighborhood and community forums to engage the public, stakeholders and advocates in dialogue. This would not have removed emotion from the debate, but it would have increased understanding of the facts, issues and options. It would also have facilitated mutual respect among people representing opposing points of view.
Our foundation offered to conduct a series of forums on the proposed ordinance. We even prepared a dialogue guide for that purpose. But advocates were too focused on selling their proposal to endorse such a notion. In hindsight, we should have proceeded with forums on our own.
It was encouraging that the Daviess County Fiscal Court welcomed unfettered public comment following the official ordinance readings and prior to the vote. But ground rules also have a place. Some audience members spoke several times, and some spoke for an unreasonably long period of time. The public hearings remained civil, but some behaviors following the vote should not have escaped exposure – for example, when a vehement opponent of the ordinance accosted, maligned, and blew cigarette smoke in the face of a school nurse who had spoken in favor of the ordinance.
Grassroots democracy is not always pretty, but it need not get ugly.
In the end, the fiscal court demonstrated respect for all points of view. Each official carefully explained his rationale in coming to judgment, a judgment that all would conclude was an informed one.
We salute all those who took an interest, sought good information, stayed focused on the common good, and devoted time and energy to such an important community decision.