The following article, written by Norman Christeller, has been cited by some country residents as evidence that he would override their objections to any planning decisions if he were named planning board chairman. Christeller claims many people misread it. The article, as printed on the editorial pages of this newspaper Feb. 13, 1978, is reprinted in full:
I came into public office out of the Montgomery County reform group during the '50s -- wrested control of the Democratic Party from a small group that had been in power many years. The reform objective was to broaden the opportunity for meaningful participation in the political process by citizens desiring good government, good land-use planning, high-quality public education and an open governmental process. The reformers' success is evident today. We probably have more widespread citizen participation than any jurisdiction of comparable size. That participation is more meaningful because of numerous advisory committees, which themselves frequently call for wider citizen input, and because council work sessions are always open and permit additional citizen input.
But these practices place great burdens on our public officials, elected or appointed, making their jobs perhaps the most demanding of any local government in the nation. The process tends to burn them out.
Now it is a rare public hearing in which the council does not learn things of importance, even from citizens taking extreme positions. The council constantly adjusts its actions to incorporate recommendations it finds to be valid.
On too many issues, however, the public input process becomes a form of confrontation politics. Many citizens seem to believe their views will not be considered unless they are offered in shrill tones and accompanies by allegations of bad motive or charges that the public-input process is a charade. Many, unwilling to accept decisions made in this process, turn to other levels of government to overturn them.
Too often, organized groups knowingly take an extreme position, figuring that the accommodation process will more likely result in something acceptable if they vigorously demand far more. In many cases leaders of these groups get so swept up they forget they were demanding more than they had any real reason to expect. The result is that they don't participate meaningfully in the accommodation that must occur if officials are to act responsibly to all their constituents, including the ones who are not shouting.
A different problem arises when citizen leaders take a more balanced view but fail to communicate it to their troops. After decisions have been made, the leaders will thank the council, but their members will denounce the council for not complying with all their demands. What was a matter of strategy for the leaders became a matter of principle for the members of their group. From the viewpoint of the members, the council had betrayed principle, and representative government was not working well.
Even more disturbing is the tendency of citizen groups to try to overturn local decisions, by asking the General Assembly to restrict local authority, or by urging state or federal authorities to withhold funding. The action of the Environmental Protection Agency in rejecting the county's advanced waste-treatment plant and the action of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in delaying and threatening the completion of the Glenmont Metrorail line, both measures coming after intensive lobbying of federal staff members by citizen-group leaders, are but two examples of federal interference that raise questions about the viability of the local decision-making process. Local officials are held accountable for solving local problems, but they do not always have full authority to do so.
It takes real political courage to make decisions you believe are in the long-term interest of all the citizens in the face of opposition from the only vocal citizens appearing before you. If those decisions are to be subject to delay and interference and frustration from other levels of government, then why not seek the political benefit of responding in the first place to the group that is shouting the loudest, sometimes the only group that is paying attention? Fortunately, most members of the two councils I served on avoided taking that route most of the time.
Too many citizens assume they can rely on their elected officials to be reasonable. They leave the public hearings to those with more extreme views. The vast majority, with a more moderate position, don't realize their views are seldom heard. Many times I have been commended for a council action that did not respond to the extreme voices heard during the public debate. Those commending us did not know that their views had not been effectively represented before the council.
The problem is compounded by the fact that many citizens who are not actively involved rely upon activists for evaluations of the effectiveness and accountability of the elected officials, not realizing that they are applying an extreme standard for that evaluation. If those of moderate views do not become more actively involved, I fear we will see the decisions and the elections move toward an extreme that only appears to be the vox populi. If that happens, a public reaction may later carry us toward the other extreme, to the further detriment of the public interest.