Sunday, March 06, 2005

Should Stand Up! — Advertiser on the Chamber

The Advertiser fills its Sunday editorial space with a call on the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce to take a stand on Lafayette's Fiber to the Home project.

The Advertiser refers to two chamber position papers (whose long incubation in committee were often cited as evidence that the chamber was still studying the issue) as critical in the decision the chamber must make now. The daily points out that taken together, the Broadband Position Statement (MS Word document, LPF html) and the Public vs Private Sector Investment (PDF, LPF html) statement constitute all the rational basis needed to make a stand in favor of the project. The Public vs. Private statement was issued January 31st after long delay and was the last "study" for which chamber leadership had been said to waiting. The newspaper notes the thrust of the two position papers:
In a nutshell, the chamber recognizes the immense value of a major broadband initiative, and believes that, when the private sector is unable or unwilling to undertake an initiative of community value, government pursuit of the initiative is reasonable.

That seems to come very close to an endorsement of the LUS project. If so, it should be formally and publicly acknowledged.
Absolutely. And long overdue, in the judgment of Lafayette Pro Fiber.

The paper rests its case for action largely on preserving the leadership role of the chamber and on the hope that its voice will provide an "informed, independent voice." As welcome as the chamber's endorsement would be, neither of these goals can any longer be realized. The chamber has already forfeited its leadership role in helping the community come to an informed decision and its extended period of inaction was, in all honesty, based on the kind of "good ole boy" relationships that reveal the chamber as simply one interest group among many. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being an interest group—and I will propose that it has a lot of value for the community—but it is no longer credible to present the chamber as a disinterested group of "leaders" whose "study" has revealed an objective best path for Lafayette citizens. The case for an endorsement must be made on other, more credible grounds if it is to lead to action useful to the chamber's membership and the community to which they belong.

The Advertiser refers to such issues only obliquely:
The Chamber leadership may believe that its silence insulates it from critics. But we would suggest that an institution's silence is a breeding ground for rumor and innuendo that can cause great damage, whether substantiated or not. For purely selfish reasons, the Chamber should speak.
That is a not-so-subtle warning to the chamber that the real reasons for its inaction are widely known, and that people inside and outside the organization are coming to the conclusion that on this issue, the organization is not to be trusted. And this distrust threatens to spread to other projects for which the chamber could still exercise a leadership role in opinion-making, such as educational budgeting and small class size. What is widely known is that a web of personal relationships exercised in part through setting up uncoordinated study committees and keeping the issues in committee long past any rational moment kept the chamber under Gary McGoffin from making a decision about whether or not cheap, ubiquitous, advanced, true broadband would benefit the businesses of Lafayette and its people. With the ascension of Tyron Picard of Acadian Ambulance to the chair, many felt that hope of a chamber endorsement was lost because of the close personal relationship of Acadiana Ambulance's Richard Zuschlag with BellSouth executives, his alliance with BellSouth over 911 technologies, and his rumored desire for membership on the BellSouth board of directors. This relationship was fairly openly expressed during the embarrassing debacle of the chamber's "broadband debate," which ended in an insulting conference call and the withdrawal of Cox and BellSouth after they failed to force a change of the ground rules for the event which would further favor them. LUS ended up making its presentation to the media alone and going home.

Beyond the personally political is the ideological. Businessmen, and the chamber is an organization of businessmen, have come to think of themselves as conservatives and some conservatives have somehow come to the conclusion that all corporations, without exception, are to be favored in any conflict between the interests of the people and the profit-taking potentials of corporations, even government-supported monopolies. This is not truly conservative — most of the disturbing changes in our culture, and the erosion of local communities, are directly attributable to large corporations' finding it profitable to ignore local values and squeeze out local infrastructure. But the fact remains that an unreflective ideology of hostility to even locally-elected, chamber-supported leadership has distorted the chamber's view.

What is needed in the face of all this is not for the chamber to take up some disinterested leadership role which it, in fact, cannot honestly play. Instead, it should honestly acknowledge its actual position as an organization of largely conservative business leaders and leverage that indisputable fact for the benefit of its membership and the community.

The chamber should forthrightly endorse the Fiber For the Future proposal because it believes that it will benefit its present membership by bringing cheap and huge bandwidth to its affiliates in a moment when telecommunications is an increasing and increasingly important slice of every business's budget. It should clearly and honestly deal with the bare fact that the interests of local businesses and businesspeople are not same as the interests of large monopoly corporations and their executives, and that confusing the two is a form of deception.

The chamber could then credibly join the community in declaring that it also has an interest in Lafayette's future unfettered development through clean, tax-producing enterprises. This would be a new style of development in which we decide that we will invest in ourselves and consider what is best for Lafayette without depending on the hope that outside groups and corporations can be enticed to bring some investment to Lafayette in return for sacrificing local values such as school revenues that result in higher relative taxes for our “merely” local businesses. Big broadband is the waterway/railroad/interstate of our day. Lafayette's existence and success has depended upon commercial access to one of these since it was named Vermillionville after our local waterway, and pointing out to the people of our community that the conduits of trade are essential to our future development is a point the chamber is in a unique position to make credibly—if it is willing to honestly own its role as an organization of businesspeople.

As Lafayette heads into an ugly fight where the incumbents will continue to pursue a path of promoting fear, uncertainty, and doubt (the preferred strategy of incumbents with no real argument), what the people of Lafayette most need is a community that stands up together and pushes back against outside money and influence. It is no longer possible to believe that any fight here will be a simple reasoned debate on the value of the proposition for the people of Lafayette. That hope died as long ago as the failed broadband debate, if it ever really existed.

The chamber can be a central and extremely important lynchpin in that coalition, one whose presence makes it impossible to argue that the plans for a fiber optic network to serve the community are somehow anti-business. Probably the most understandable, if not the wisest, reason given for chamber inaction was that it sought to avoid conflict. With other institutions that are on the verge of an open endorsement (such as the local Republican party) joining in the fray on the side of Lafayette, a grand alliance of Lafayette institutions will be possible. Such an alliance would help neutralize the dishonest claims that BellSouth and Cox are protecting "free enterprise" and "conservative values." And that alone would go a long way toward making any conflict more honest—which is the best the chamber can hope to achieve if it is motivated by lowering the level of divisive conflict we are likely to face.

The time for us all to stand up is now. And the chamber can take a lead in that project.

Update: The original format of the two supporting documents from the chamber are provided in formats that may not be immediately accessible to all. I have provided standard web page (html formatted) versions of both. (See the "LPF html" links above.)

11 comments:

GumboFilé said...

There are many bad reasons but no good ones for the Chamber to take any but a neutral position on this. Why is it so important that they betray some memebrs on behalf of others?

John said...

Hi gumbofile,

I think we've established that we disagree on the basis for making a judgment of good or bad in this case so I'll pass on the ratio of good to bad reasons available.

But it does seem to me that you would impose an impossible condition on any organization that hopes to influence public policy--from political organizations like the democratic or republican parties, to sector alliances like the Chamber, to narrower organizations like homebuilders. If such organizations can only act if all or even an overwhelming majority of its membership is in favor of a course of action they'd end up doing very little--and what they could take a stand on would be useless. (Because everyone would already agree on an overwhelmingly popular course of action.)

No, to have a useful leadership/educational role at all such organizations must be able to find the courage to act when the judgment of the majority and the objective interests of the part of the community they represent both indicate a course of action.

I am not a member of the Chamber but I do know members, and members of the board. As far as I can tell from the outside both of these conditions are met. The anti-fiber contingent has been running what is essentially an obstructionist campaign of delay, advocating, disingenuously since they actually oppose the fiber project, a position of neutrality which would not represent either the sense of the membership or the membership’s objective self-interest.

The chamber should act. On behalf of its own, local self-interest and reputation first, and secondarily on the behalf of the best interests of the community in which its members operate.

I cannot see how this would be a betrayal. Quite the contrary.

GumboFilé said...

I'm a longtime member of both the Chamber and the Homebuilders and as far as I'm concerned this type of practice is a misuse of these organizations. This is not their stated purpose nor is it the reason most businesses join. This would do damage to their credibility and their ability to recruit and retain members. You admit to not being a member of the Chamber. To complain about them not taking a position is kind of like the folks who complain about politics and don't vote. Pay some Chamber dues or shutup.

John said...

Touchy, touchy,

It certainly seems to me that if one is disqualified from having an opinion about the Chamber by not being a member then one should be disqualified from having an opinion about the Lafayette's Fiber to the Home project by not being a citizen.

And yet I have not suggested you shut up, now have I?


Still, I tried to treat your objection with some respect (irrespective of the way you treated mine) and went looking for a Chamber Mission Statement. It's pretty easy to find:

"Mission Statement: The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce is the leading force in the improvement of the business environment, the economic health and development and prosperity of the region." (http://www.lafchamber.org/site61.php)

That sounds like a pretty grandiose statement, I admit. But in both your judgment and mine the FTTH project qualifies as a project which will shape the economic health and development of the region. You believe it will be bad for the region and I good. But it does seem from the evidence of the Chamber's mission statement that being a "leading force" in such matters is their central, and openly declared, purpose. If they are going to be true to their mission they must take a stand.

GumboFilé said...

I pay Lafayette property taxes and LUS utilities. This is the only vote I get. We can disagree about the Chamber mission but as a member I can say that this is not the kind of thing that gets most folks to pay Chamber dues. It hasn't gotten you to pay any dues. Again, say all you want about LUS fiber, but unless you're willing to pay some Chamber dues you should cease from trying to influence Chamber business.

John said...

Sorry I am not going to accommodate you on this and you shouldn't be asking me to. You are wrong on this one and really ought to admit it. (Or if you continue to insist on my stepping out of the chamber debate you should step out of Lafayette's debate.--Logically you cannot have it both ways.)

We are not, frankly, disagreeing about the Chamber mission. You are ignoring the clear words of the Chamber because you prefer to think that the mission of the chamber is the reason you chose to join it rather than what its mission statement actually says it is. Maybe the wisest course of action is to either work to change that mission or resign and forgo the benefits that you value because of the principles that membership aligns you with.

I do see how you try to reconcile claiming a right to try and effect the outcome of Lafayette's issues even though you don't live here while denying me the right to comment on the Lafayette chamber's taking a position that materially effects the future of my community. How? You believe, somehow, and in contradiction to our tradition, that having a legitimate opinion depends upon how much money you have invested. You've invested money in both places, so you have a right to an opinion. I haven't so I don't.

That is just about as wrong-headed as is imaginable. In the American system, there is no limit on the right to have an opinion and try to influence public policy. There is no (legitimate) preference for money, power, or position. The Chamber makes itself a public entity by addressing and intending to influence public policy.

It isn't just fiber. I don't hear you complaining about any other issue other than one you think you are going to loose on. Do I hear you demanding that the Chamber quit trying to shape the budget of the school board? Quit intervening in issues that are fundamentally instructional like class size? I do not. No teacher has a right to an opinion about the Chamber stance on these things unless they pony up to join? Surely you haven't thought this through.

Did you catch the morning's paper? Notice anything about the “Chamber of Commerce's Building Communities Conference?” Does that sound like they are involving themselves in my public policy? It does. Was Education a big issue? Yes. I have every right to try and influence an institution that is trying to mold my community.

You should really back down on this one or back out of the debate altogether.

I have to say plainly that I am not particularly sympathetic with people or corporations that come into Lafayette and, based on what they narrowly imagine to be their monetary self-interest, try and influence Lafayette to their benefit. I don’t care for it when corporations based in Atlanta do it and I don’t care for it when you do it. You choose to live outside the city and parish and its problems and issues; and take your profit elsewhere so that you can live in comfort in the country. Your choice. But don’t expect any special dispensation or encouragement from an actual citizen who has chosen to live on the northside. My concern isn’t with my money but with my neighbors, my friends, my two children and six grandchildren all of whom live in the city or parish. I have every right to have an opinion about the Chamber’s effects on my community. Even with all that and your (successful) efforts to provoke me I don’t question your right to comment and have tried to treat your points with respect. But you try my patience. It should be easy for you to see that the chamber spends huge amounts of its energy trying, effectively I might add, to effect public policy. I certainly have the right (and obligation) to try and effect the Chamber.

And, in my judgment, to the degree that they are serious about being community (as opposed to business) leaders they would serve themselves and the community well by hearing what all, and not just their narrow membership has to say.

GumboFilé said...

Touchy touchy.

Though I don't live in Lafayette I do pay my dues.

If you want me to keep reading all you have to say, you're going to have to start using fewer words. An argument doesn't have to be long to be effective. Too many words can even be countereffective.

If you decide to join the Chamber be sure to give me credit for recruiting you. It's a good investment.

GumboFilé said...

ps, I love Grand Coteau but being "bi-parish" only multiplies my woes. Grand Coteau is proof that, when it comes to civil government, size doesn't always matter. Small town government is still a government of politicians. Thanks to them I pay probably three times what you pay for natural gas and homeowners' insurance.

John said...

Oh you know, getting told to shutup tends to put one off one's feed.

If it needs to be simple I can do that. I've got this habit of trying to lay out a complete argument and document at least some of what I am saying. I even try and raise more than one point at time. It can get difficult if you don't have the habit of trying to follow out complex reasoning.


Here is the breakdown on one argument:
1) The Chamber says it mission is to influence public policy-broadly (see ref above)
2) It actually does so at both the state and the local level (see refs above)
3) Anybody who tries to effect public policy in my community has offered themselves up for comment.
4) I get to comment, criticize, endorse, and urge any entity that tries to do influence what will be possible for me and mine in my community.
5) I do not have to pay for the privledge.(Should go without saying but I am trying to be explicit.)

What part of this do you disagree with?

(A friendly caution: I will regard it as evasive if you argue that this should not be the real mission of the Chamber. Both the Chamber's words and their actions say otherwise. You need to deal with the facts as we actually find them to get credit in this venue.)

GumboFilé said...

I had to chill for awhile. If you haven't noticed I can get too preoccupied with this. I can also be lazy about reading arguments I'm not interested in. Please forgive me.

This really is a side argument and probably not worthy of our time spent. Certainly not worth getting so worked up. Regardless, I want to reply.

I agree with the Chamber's mission to influence public policy broadly. However, I don't think this is a broad issue. I think it's a narrow issue.

It's not entirely dissimilar to endorsing a political candidate, which the Chamber does not do because they also claim to be non-partisan, which could simply mean that the Chamber does not align itself with a political party, but could also mean that they will not become party to a dispute, which this is.

Given the vagueness and potentially contradictory language in these statements, I can't see how it's in any way clear that the Chamber would or should include a position on this issue as part of their mission. Add to that the contentious nature of the debate and the fact that the divisions are sharp and deep and I think it's downright unwise. Ultimately the Chamber exists to benefit its members. Taking a side on this issue could jeopardize their future ability to do this.

Our right to speak publicly on this issue is equal, however I have paid for the priviledge to influence Chamber policy and you haven't. You are certainly free to criticize the Chamber and anyone else you don't agree with, but in criticizing the Chamber about an issue on which they have not spoken, you are also trying to influence them on that issue.

John said...

Hi Gumbofile,

Wanted to reply to this mostly to let you know that I wasn't ignoring your attempt to encourage us both to chill out. I do appreciate it.

I've not had much success in writing a good reply and have discarded several. So here is a poor one. Bear with me. On the substance,such as it is of the side issue I do think I can understand that you as a member wish that I weren't urging the course I am. Not only because you oppose it but because you fear that the Chamber taking a stand will damage it for the purposes for which you value the organization.

I still can't see where, given the actual words and actions of the Chamber I shouldn't have complete liscence to _try_ and influence a Chamber which prides itself on 1) leadership and 2) taking a leading role in regional development. I think they must, on both accounts take a stand--and think it ought be in favor of fiber.

After an inordinate amount of reflection I think the reason I was willing to pursue this so far is that I had invested in the image of this gumbo fella as what I would call "reasonable"--we disagreed on many issues but could agree on the rules of the game. Your lonely endorsement of my frustration with the online "bond" poll heartened me. I hoped folks on both our sides would join us in "laying down" a useless weapon that encouraged us all to act badly. I was disappointed, of course, when nobody on either side was willing to denounce it as long as they thought it might produce some propoganda advantage.

I think that bodes ill for the rest of this fight. So when you came on as you did about not trying to influence a body that regularly tries to influence, for instance, education and then got to the shuttup line I confess that it violated the image I'd built of you, out of hope perhaps, and I funked out. Sorry about that.

I'm a very partisan guy--and willing to fight hard. But I do like the idea that a hard-hitting fight can still have some rules that keep the conversation going in a productive direction. I'm sincerly worried that there aren't enough of us that think that way to keep it going in a good direction.

At any rate, I appreciate your attempts to stay with what you understand to be your principles and to ratchet the tone down a bit. Thanks.