Is anybody listening?

Have you ever attended a public forum or an information session on a contentious issue? Foremost over the last couple of years, as a subject for such events, would be fracking. But these gatherings are more and more common as public opinion embraces the right of all to be involved in debates surrounding issues viewed as important to the community at large. Whether that community is your local school, parish, village, town or, indeed, the entire province, all are welcome. The “community of interest” itself is open to endless definition. If you have something that concerns you and if, in turn, you can find and/or cultivate sufficient numbers who share that concern, you can define your community in any way you might like.

In and of itself, as with so many things, this represents a noble ideal. The inherent good of concerned citizens coming together to discuss issues is hard to deny. Unfortunately, in my experience, all too often such events cease to be a true forum of exchange. Instead, become a podium for any number of groups who arrive at meetings to trumpet a pre-determined position (not bad in and of itself) with no intention of being dissuaded from whatever that position might be.

A few years ago now, I attended an “information meeting” that concerned a plan to install a high-voltage power line adjacent to some properties with a view of the Bay of Fundy. An engineer came to answer any questions arising from concerns the opponents might have. The opponents were well-organized and began the meeting by outlining their concerns regarding loss of property value, restricted views but, most importantly for the purposes of this piece, health concerns associated with high power electrical lines.

After allowing the opponent’s representative and anyone else who might want to add anything to speak, the engineer began a detailed response to the concerns. I had heard the property value question expressed many times through my years as a member of Saint John’s Planning Advisory Committee. It can lead to considerable disagreements, since it isn’t always easy to assess exactly what kind of impact any change might have on such values. The fear of a restricted view might have been assuaged a bit when it was pointed out that the wires would be 70 feet in the air.

The most significant reservation was saved for last: health. Studies have suggested that exposure to high-voltage power lines can cause health problems. The engineer pointed out that the proposed lines were on the very bottom end of “high-voltage” and, thus, represented no real risk. Further, the height at which they were to be installed kept them at such a distance that any imagined risk to people was mitigated even further.

The engineer pointed out that burying the lines (which was the preferred option of the opponents) would, in fact, bring the lines closer to people and, as a result, present a greater risk, since soil does not interfere with the emissions of high-voltage lines. In light of that last point, the conclusion, to me, seemed obvious. If health, rather than losing your view or a general aesthetic objection, is the core issue, then surely burying the line was a bad idea.

So the presentation was finished and the assembly was asked how they wanted to move forward. After a moment, one voice rose above the others exclaiming: “bury the line!” Whereupon the room burst into near-thunderous applause.

And so it goes with public information sessions. All too often, information is neither sought nor welcomed. Rather than encouraging serious discussion, such meetings allow the loudest voice to win the day and that voice is rarely open to debate. If reason and judgment threaten to invade the public arena, I guess the best strategy is to drown them out.