Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 9.11.08

Two Approaches
Decisionmaking styles go on the ballot
by Mary O’Brien

On Nov. 4 we will have in front of us choices of two fundamentally different approaches to decisionmaking at our national, county and city levels.

One approach is exemplified by John McCain, Bobby Green and Jim Torrey. All three are known for making their decisions from a compact, consistently corporate base, without much public process. Some people are attracted to this approach as “muscular,” “efficient,” “decisive.” It seems to me to be largely devoid of democracy.

The other approach we’ll be voting on is exemplified by Barack Obama, Rob Handy and Kitty Piercy. All three are known for making their decisions from a broad, input-intensive public base. 

I gather my sense of Obama’s decisionmaking mostly through his history of community organizing and his stated determination that his campaign be heavily grassroots-fueled and grassroots-responsive.

In contrast, I have watched and interacted close-up with Piercy for 26 years. As an advocate for women’s choice, she was a memorably intelligent organizer and steady colleague. As a state legislator, she insisted on gathering the thoughts of opposing viewpoints and information on any significant issue before she decided which bill she would support, oppose or seek to modify. As Eugene’s mayor, she re-initiated use of the mayor’s publicly supported and accessible office to meet with people, rather than meeting with a small group of business players away from the public eye. Her penchant for assembling diverse groups to consider options for downtown, sustainability and transportation is well-known.

Oh, but such decisionmaking takes time. It’s messy. It isn’t forceful.

Like democracy. 

The choice between challenger Rob Handy and incumbent Bobby Green for Lane County commissioner from north Eugene offers a study in this same contrast of decisionmaking styles.

 Known for his failure to respond to constituent emails, phone calls and requests for meetings, Green runs predictably with the county’s economic power base for nearly all his decisions. If elected commissioner, Handy would regard those same constituent contacts as essential for reaching solutions and making sound county decisions. It’s not only differing private/public philosophies; it’s the two different decisionmaking processes. 

I’ve worked with Rob Handy for several years while seeking solutions to transportation problems in west Eugene. I’ve watched him at work with community members of the Trainsong neighborhood near the Union Pacific railyard, seeking analysis and cleanup of the railyard’s toxic legacy that was welling up in their yards. I’ve watched him advocate for talking about money while on a committee assigned the task of discussing downtown visions.

Handy is thoughtful, deliberative, inclusive and diligent as he sifts through facts, options, strong personalities and inevitable tensions. The focus of his decisionmaking is workable solutions that are responsive to the wider community.

You might recall how annoyed some people were when they felt lectured by Michelle Obama. She told one gathering of voters that if Obama is elected, they would have a lot of work to do. But she was merely expressing the truth and inconvenience of democracy: If you want to govern yourselves, you’ll have to participate in the decisions. At the very least you’ll get to. That’s what a lot of people die for around the world: the chance to govern themselves.

Of course, handing government decisionmaking over to a small group of (generally highly financed) participants is really only efficient in the short run. We’ll spend decades getting out of the debt the great Decider hands over to his successor (as well as us) on Jan. 20, 2009, thanks to the Decider’s war on the foreign guy who controlled our oil under his sand and tried to kill the Decider’s father. We’re going to spend a long time funding the mortgage fiasco fashioned by a few powerful companies who handed out mortgages like candy and simultaneously lobbied Congress to let them do it in an efficient, small-government manner. We spent 20 years arguing about the elegantly simple plan to crunch a four-lane expressway straight through federally protected wetlands in west Eugene. We finally faced the fact that the democratic law called National Environmental Policy Act really did require that the deciders publicly consider reasonable alternatives before building the freeway. 

It’s not that democratic decisionmaking comes up with perfect solutions. But at least the decisions are publicly vetted. 

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at