The ICLEI Saga

At last Monday’s Council meeting (1/23/2012) there was an intense discussion about San Carlos’ $600 a year membership in an organization called ICLEI. Why was this such a heated topic? Few people in San Carlos are even aware of what ICLEI is, let alone why membership in it should be controversial.

I’m writing this post to explain why an issue unknown to almost everyone generated such passion, and to explain why I voted to reaffirm the City’s membership.

To many people, ICLEI would appear to be a pretty innocuous organization (you can read more about it here) whose overall goal, encouraging sustainable development, seems commendable.

But the devil in pursuing any idea is in the details. A favorite author wrote “every evil is a good grown cancerous”. Concern over what excessive adherence to sustainable development precepts might mean agitates some people. Does it mean the end of private property? The end of people being able to create new things and new modes of living? The subjugation of the individual to serve the almighty public good?

Most people take a pragmatic approach to such potential fears. They recognize that decisions often arise out of conflicting demands and goals. They also recognize that guiding principles by their very nature ignore limits (e.g., enshrining the 1st Amendment while punishing people who shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater for fun). Public decisions often involve striking a balance among conflicting principles in such a way as to maintain their essence.

But on any given issue some don’t view the world that way. What made ICLEI membership contentious was some people believing the City was supporting a group who were out to destroy civilization. That’s why many speakers accused the Council of being Nazis, fascists, communists, traitors, tyrants, oath-breakers and engaged in treasonous activities. Many also pleaded with us to abandon ICLEI, reject the false research about global warming (and accept their analysis instead), do something about radiation from utility “smart meters”, protect their property in other communities from public encroachment, reject higher density housing to keep undesirables out of San Carlos, change the way planning is done to eliminate constraints on property owners, and a host of other things (you can watch the comments in their entirety here; the ICLEI discussion was item 11(d), beginning at timestamp 3:13:08, while public comments began shortly after timestamp 3:46:30). During Council discussion my colleague Matt Grocott made an impassioned plea for immediately terminating the membership because of the threat posed by the organization.

I had a different reaction, based on my own research. I spent quite a bit of time reading about ICLEI, Agenda 21, and the concerns of the anti-ICLEI coalition. I did not see evidence of an effort to destroy civilization. I did see an organized, long-term effort to get policy makers to think about how to pass on their communities in a form that would allow future generations to enjoy life at least as much as we do. I also did not see any evidence of a conspiracy to hoodwink elected officials into acting against the public interest. Instead, I saw yet one more viewpoint – sustainable development – arguing for inclusion in their decisions.

I also encountered a lot of “conspiracy thinking”. But while there have been conspiracies, they are in reality quite rare, and usually small. As Ben Franklin said, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” It isn’t credible that a global worldwide conspiracy could be masterminded by a private non-profit non-governmental organization involving hundreds of people and thousands of member governments. Someone, among all those people, would spill the beans.

Besides, there’s a simpler explanation for communities implementing sustainable development principles: they’ve independently decided it makes sense. Bottom-up societal changes happen exactly that way, whether they involve conservation and environmentalism or tax revolts. San Carlos wasn’t forced to adopt practices and rules opposed by the anti-ICLEI coalition. Those decisions were made locally, by locally elected officials, trying to be responsive to local concerns and values, within the broader legal and constitutional framework.

But, my research aside, why take a vote on the matter of membership? Why vote to continue spending a trivial amount of money when some feel it’s dangerous? At the very least, why not gather more data and have more discussion? These are all good questions.

They have a common answer. We have more pressing issues to deal with than a $600 membership for a service we must acquire somewhere to meet state mandates.

This may not sit well with people who believe ICLEI poses a clear and present danger. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. If additional credible information about a threat from ICLEI surfaces I’d be willing to reconsider. But, to be clear, any additional credible information would have to be more solid than what I’ve seen from the anti-ICLEI coalition. Also, it would have to be new information. I see little or no value in revisiting previously-reviewed material.

My duty, as someone entrusted by the community to act on its behalf and in its interests, is not to change minds. Nor is it to include all perspectives in what the City does. It isn’t even to spend time listening to every issue, idea, or thought that someone thinks might affect San Carlos. It’s to spend my time wisely, identifying those issues which I believe could impact or benefit our community, and then convince my colleagues and staff they should be addressed. In an open and transparent manner. After which the Council should make such decisions as seem appropriate for the good of all the residents of San Carlos.

The Council went well out of its way to do that, so far as the City’s ICLEI membership is concerned, last Monday night. We have a City to run. Let’s get on with making it even better than it is.

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