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Democratic process in action?

 

Referring to the proposed Legacy Ranch subdivision, Commissioner Foss is quoted thus: “When people decide they are going to sue before the process is even completed, we need to be prepared.” Commissioner Chilcott goes further by publicly apologizing to Ms. Morton (one of the developers) for “insults” she has had to endure from an angry public wondering why this proposed town from outer space has to land in their backyard. This from elected officials who are supposed to be protecting Us the Taxpayers from inappropriate development schemes in exchange for pretty good wages.

Given this lay of the land, I’d like to clarify a few things for our commissioners and for anyone else confused about how things work in our nominally-participatory democracy.

First off, Ms. Foss is correct. We do have to be prepared. After all, this is the same commission that approved another private monstrosity miles out of Hamilton – Flatiron – on the slimmest of legal justifications and with the clever help of their same Planning Office Manager, Terry Nelson (who as chair of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee helped put three of these commissioners in office), whose department is shepherding this latest monster subdivision through. Remember? If this commission remains true to their ideological school, they will approve this one, too.

Ms. Foss claims that those who oppose Legacy are acting aggressively “before the process has been completed.” As a reminder, no one beats the aforementioned Nelson Planning Department for pre-emptive arrogance. His team was so certain that the public would have nothing worthwhile to say that they recommended approval for Legacy before the public process ever got started, and the currently-compromised Planning Board agreed with Nelson’s assessment that the public had nothing of value to say and gave Legacy their rubber stamp. So, yes, wary citizens have no choice but to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

Which brings us to democratic process. Again, Ms. Foss is correct. Nobody can sue before something happens. How obvious is that? Nevertheless, I’ll state that as an active member of Bitterrooters for Planning (BFP) — a group much maligned and unfairly accused of lying by Ms. Morton while the selectively-chivalrous Chilcott stood by and apologized to us not one time – I can say unequivocally that that organization has been making every honest attempt to provide this commission with the accurate, detailed information it needs to deny this subdivision on the various criteria, which it could and should do, given the glaring weight of evidence. If, that is, this commission is working for us and not for developers prone to hurt feelings and personal insults when they don’t get their way. Opposition to this project runs far deeper than BFP, and that opposition showed up on their own legs at the various meetings hoping for the best. They hope the commission denies Legacy and that

no citizen group has to sue to force democratic process. There’s nothing undemocratic about assertive optimism. In fact, that’s how, at its best, our system works for the greatest good.

There are a few things the public needs to be reminded of concerning the Legacy Town proposal.

• Under Montana law, the preliminary plat process — the process we’re now seeing the tail end of – is the only time the public will have any meaningful say, and that’s why the developers are advising the commissioners to “kick the can down the road” to DEQ and DNRC, and even to themselves, as far as real details about how this monstrosity can possibly work without damaging your community and your wallet. Whether it can work or not (and again, the preponderance of evidence demonstrates that it simply can’t) the developers know that if the commissioners give them their preliminary approval, the citizens will be cut out of the procedural loop. No more of this messy democracy aimed at perfectly nice gazillionaires just trying to make a buck. Maybe the DEQ, they tell us, or the DNRC, maybe the commissioners without our input, or maybe even Santa Claus, will unilaterally find something wrong with this proposal after the preliminary plat is approved and “save us.” But without our active concern and involvement you really shouldn’t count on it. Once it passes preliminary plat, the developers win, we lose. Now’s the time for the commissioners to deny this bad boy. That’s how our current process would work best. That’s not name-calling. That’s the right thing to do.

• All five commissioners are demonstrably compromised in regard to their developer-benefactors and real estate interests and this should rightly concern us, given the magnitude of “inevitable change” these developer-friendly Republicans have already foisted on us with Flatiron. But Commissioners Foss and Stoltz actually accepted significant campaign contributions from the Legacy developers — Donald and Alexandra Morton — and from employees of the Mortons’ engineering firm, Territorial Landworks, including its CEO Jason Rice (http://campaignreport.mt.gov/FindDocuments). They and their other political benefactor, Republican Central Committee Chair and Planning Office Manager Terry Nelson, actually rewrote the county’s subdivision regulations so the Legacy Team wouldn’t have to deal with one of the main hang-ups in their past proposals, the negative effects of Porter Hill Road. Of course, anybody can donate to the political campaigns of anybody they want (especially after Citizens United, speaking of the going price for souls!), but this is just plain basic. Given the magnitude of this project, the profits their political benefactors stand to gain, the public harm likely to occur, they have a clear conflict of interest one tenth the amount of which would force any judge to recuse themselves from any given case. Similarly, if Foss and Stoltz want to maintain even the fig leaf of democratic process, they should recuse themselves on Legacy. That’s not name-calling. That’s just plain fair.

It’s easy and sometimes productive for those in power to misrepresent and blame those who criticize them. Scapegoating is part of human nature and indeed is part of our participatory political process. After all, the commissioners and Ms. Morton are bent out of shape because we’re exercising the rights some of us feel we’ve bought and paid for with the bodies and souls of ourselves, our buddies, our family members. We’re not gonna shrink from false accusations or hypocrisy. They come with the territory we feel we fought for. In fact, a longing for the Holy Grail of Good Government is a big part of what motivates us, makes us active in the first place. I guess I should say thanks to those who are visiting the Legacy Town proposal upon us. They’re truly challenging us to work for our democracy.

Bill LaCroix

Victor

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