Tonight I went to a meeting of the Board of Orange County Commissioners (BOCC), since one of my neighbors urged me to attend since they were voting on the waste transfer station. If you've never experienced local politics like this, I would encourage you to do so; it will open your eyes to the nature of politics.
A little background:
Orange County's landfill on Eubanks Road is running out of room. By 2011, the landfill will be out of space and the county's daily 170 tons of trash will have to go someplace else. County officials eventually settled on building a waste transfer station: a place where garbage is packed up, put on to big trucks, and hauled off to someplace else with more land than money. A waste transfer station is not as bad as a dump, but it still means an awful lot of garbage is going to be sitting around nearby (and potentially contaminating ground water), and lots of trucks will be coming and going.
So, the county has been going through a long, drawn-out process of figuring out where to put this waste transfer station. After a number of false starts (something I'll talk about later) the final site the commissions were set to approve was about three miles from where I live. So, I had a personal interest in this particular meeting.
What it was like:
There's a room -- not a very big room, maybe large enough to seat 80 people -- where the commissioners conduct their meetings. The six commissioners (one was absent) sat in an elevated panel, with microphones and name plates in front of them. Not that different from the sort of C-SPAN segments you see for Senate hearings. To either side of the commissioners were a couple broad tables, where the county management staff sat: a clerk who recorded the proceedings, a county manager who seemed to be running the docket, and a lawyer who provided counsel when needed. Some big computer projection screens were up front as well, so staff or visiting parties could present information. A gallery of chairs was set out for the public, and a podium sat in the middle of the chairs from which individuals could address the commissioners.
You could pretty much tell who was who by the way they dressed. The commissioners, being local politicians, had a mostly business-casual look to them: shirts and khakis, some with ties and some without, maybe a tweedy jacket here and there. The staff, being professional bureaucrats, wore the uniform of government: suits that were anything but casual but still managed to look cheap. The lawyers (and no matter what the commissioners were discussing, there was always a lawyer or two involved) wore dark silk suits, which did look expensive and seemed to gleam menacingly. The public -- well, they looked like you and me, mostly: people in jeans, loafers, raincoats, workboots. Everyone in the public gallery looked unhappy and bored -- because, I soon learned, nobody comes to a county commissioners meeting without cause to be unhappy, and anyone who sit through such a meeting is doomed to be bored out their skulls.
The proceedings went something like this:
The chair would announce the next item on the agenda. "Next . . . 6-A, Efland Sewer Rate Schedule Change . . ." The names were just obscure enough unless you knew what they were talking about, you didn't know what they talking about.
The county staff would make some sort of presentation on the matter at hand. Sometimes it was as simple as just reminding them what the matter was about, and why they needed to vote on it. Other times a bureaucrat of some stripe would wiz through a PowerPoint presentation, explaining numbers, charts, time tables, and plots of land. It seemed like the staff had a lot of power in determining what defined the option that was presented to the Board for review.
The commissioners would ask a few questions of the staff, some of which seemed genuinely pertinent and others which seemed like political posturing. Rarely did a measure, no matter how picayune, go through without someone having to say something about it, even though nearly every measure brought up was met with unanimous approval.
The public was invited to comment. Someone would step up to the podium in the middle of the floor, and begin a speaking. A timer would chirp in the background as the clerk set the clock -- individuals only had three minutes apiece to speak. Occasionally the speaker would hand a written copy of their statement to the clerk, which was the best indication of whether they had ever done this sort of thing before. Nearly all the speakers were reasonably succinct, eloquent, and persuasive. (Maybe I just had low expectations; I expected the sort of lunkheaded sentiments I hear on talk radio. Instead I heard people speak in complete sentences and appeal to reason. Wow! People talking through problems! Democracy! Wow!) No matter what the issue was, the speakers from the public were always against it. (Like I said, nobody comes to these things unless they have a problem.)
The commissions would put a motion on the table, almost unfailingly to approve what had been proposed by staff, but always with a few modifications. A voice vote was taken, the commissioners would vote unanimously in favor, and then on to the next agenda item.
It went like that from 7:00 pm . . . to 8:00 pm . . . to 9:00 pm . . . to 10:00 pm. Finally, at about a quarter past 10 pm, the waste transfer station issue was brought to the floor.
Local politics, evidently, is an endurance game. I'm glad I came early and got a seat. Half the people there couldn't even sit down the whole time. (to be continued)