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Changing Places, and Winning

The value of grass roots organizing

August 1, 2000 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

One day last winter I arrived at the Grand Traverse County Road Commission for a public hearing lugging a box of official documents, all related to the county’s proposal to build a $22.5 million road and bridge south of Traverse City.

I’d carefully studied them, including the traffic modeling and the federal objections to building this link in the proposed Traverse City bypass through a scenic stretch of the Boardman River Valley. My intent was clear: Describe the flaws in the county plan. Then explain that upgrading an existing bridge and roads would solve the region’s traffic problems. In fact, hundreds of residents had joined a local coalition to support this alternative.

Sitting at the commission table, I had just begun to state my case when the tone turned sour. “You are just interested in suing us,” charged one commissioner.
No, I explained, we’ve never sued anyone. And we wouldn’t reveal in great detail the errors in the county plan if we simply planned to sue.

Growing visibly angry, the commissioner retorted, “In a study this big you can always find things to pick apart. You’re just stalling.”

Government can always portray citizen concerns as stall tactics, I replied. In this case, addressing problems now actually will save time and taxpayer money.
But my replies didn’t penetrate his defenses. And then he went on the offensive. “This all comes down to whose bridge plan is better,” the commissioner angrily surmised. “I’d like to take all the environmentalists down into the river valley and just choke them.”

It was the one thing I’d come unprepared for: An emotional attack. The threatening words hung in the air as I surveyed the other commissioners’ faces. Not a word from anyone. A technical discussion had given way to a bullying match. That’s a contest we don’t engage in. Meeting over.

Later, as I reflected on the outburst, the irony washed over me. We activists are busy unearthing facts, crafting solutions, and participating in the democratic process; meanwhile, numerous government officials are shouting and objecting to a process they no longer can dominate. We’re changing places. And the transformation has some officials coming unhinged.

What should activists make of this turn of events? My take is simple: We’re winning. When officials resort to rants, we’re winning. When fact-finding is rejected as nitpicking, we’re winning. When “done deals” come undone, we’re winning.
What’s remarkable about my experience is how commonplace it has become. Pick about any spot in Michigan, and citizens are taking charge of transportation and land use planning:

• In Petoskey, after 15 years, farmers and progressive township leaders have fought the state Department of Transportation to a near standstill on plans to forge a bypass through active farmlands.
• In Alpena, residents last March defeated the state’s $1.5 billion plan to re-route and widen 100 miles of US-23 through prime recreational lands.
• In southern Michigan, 700 residents gathered in May in small-town Temperance to plot strategy to stop I-73, a new interstate proposed to run alongside an existing highway between Jackson and Toledo.
• And in northwest Michigan, a strong local coalition is releasing a new and improved version of our Traverse City bypass alternative.
Taken together, it’s an unabashed objection to business as usual. And it’s a challenge to elected officials: Listen to your constituents, open your minds to unexpected alternatives, and share in the vision for more vibrant communities. Your hometown, and your blood pressure, will be better for it.

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