New Septic Ordinance — Challenges and Opportunities by Tim Clark
The vote on May 5, 2021, to approve the septic ordinance received a “Yes” vote from Commissioners Biddle and Braden and a “No” vote from Commissioner Pittman. The overall management of the final review and approval process represents challenges as well as opportunities for improvement.
The public hearing date for this ordinance was first scheduled last November. Commissioner Anderson did not support the ordinance and had already decided not to run for reelection. He was replaced with Chuck Braden. I wrote a two-part article on the issues identifying a needed justification for the specific changes (Guest Opinion: Justification ordinance lacking for proposed septic ordinance Brown County Democrat, Nov 24, 2020). I also provided a response to the updated information provided to the commissioners and reinforced key points in my written comments to the commissioners provided on May 3, 2021. I share these on my website: Independent Voters of Brown County IN.
To summarize the process, approving an ordinance requires three public meetings to include considering written comments provided by citizens. Citizens were asked to limit their verbal comments at the public hearing to two minutes, which reinforced the importance of providing written comments to identify concerns, questions, and recommendations.
In the case of this ordinance, the health board, through the work of a committee of volunteers, drafted a new ordinance and recommended approval to the commissioners (elected officials). The work of volunteer committees can easily be influenced by one or more individuals with an agenda.
The “elected” officials — not appointees or volunteers — are directly accountable to the voters. The expectation is that commissioners will listen, seek to understand, and address the specific concerns and questions of their constituents before voting to approve an ordinance. These actions help to ensure the development and execution of the best policies for the county.
At the state level, as opposed to the county level, elected officials are required by law to “fully consider comments received” (IC 4-22-2-27). The default standard at the county level appears to be that if you dislike the quality of the decisions of your elected representatives, vote for a change and improve the decision-making processes.
The written comments on the ordinance were due by May 3, with the second and final vote due less than 48 hours later at 2:00 p.m. on May 5. At the second reading, Commissioner Biddle moved for an immediate vote, which prompted questions from the public. Commissioner Pittman asked for a two-week delay to allow time to review the written comments and provide a response. Commissioners Biddle and Braden refused the delay and refused to consider providing any documented justification for their approval of the specific changes included in the ordinance. Further, they did not demonstrate an understanding, knowledge, or interest in all the written comments provided by citizens, including those from their fellow commissioner.
The decision-making process of Commissioner Biddle and Braden resulted in a disservice to the citizens opposing this ordinance, as well as to the individuals and groups that worked on its approval. Refusal to justify and defend a position can contribute to questions about motives, competence, and the overall quality of the ordinance.
In contrast, better processes could lead to an outcome where everyone benefits, or at least, are not any worse off in the long-term. This would have required the commissioners to schedule additional public meetings to allow for more in-depth discussions on the issues and areas of disagreement. This approach can lead to better policies, community buy-in, and support for the changes. It may only take two votes to pass an ordinance, but it also will only take two to replace it with a better version.
Why would Commissioners Biddle and Braden avoid supporting further discussions to help clarify and resolve the differences between the proponents and opponents of this ordinance? The short answer is that they do not have to.
With a monopoly on political power, some county-elected officials can choose to represent the interests of the few with little repercussion. Commissioner Pittman was the only commissioner who identified that he talked with his constituents. His concerns, questions, and position were published in the Brown County Democrat Letter: “Brown County citizens’ rights” and septic ordinance on Jan 12, 2021, and in a guest column in the Brown County Democrat, Thoughts on the proposed septic ordinance update on April 27, 2021.
From a systems perspective, elected officials can be selected based on their support for a status quo that can favor one or more special interests or groups as opposed to the interests of all their constituents. Appointed officials and volunteers can either go along to get along, or risk being a social outcast. And cognitive dissonance helps people avoid acknowledging the truth in a respective situation and while expecting better decisions on behalf of all the citizens.
A way ahead? In future articles, I will provide additional information on the issues and processes regarding this ordinance. I will also introduce some better methods that have a higher probability of producing results where everyone benefits, or at least, are not any worse off in the long-term.
Tim Clark of Brown County is a quality improvement practitioner, educator, and author who specializes in the public sector. He is a senior member of the American Society for Quality, a volunteer with the Brown County Leader Network, and an admin for the Facebook group Brown County Matters. He has served on the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and on the Brown County Schools Strategic Planning Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.