Four hundred people gave up their evenings at home, cut short their workdays and sat in a mess of extra traffic to exercise their American right to speak truth to power in Fairfax County.
They drove to James Madison High School in Vienna last week to let Fairfax supervisors know that they don't (or do) want 1,800 houses built near Hunter Mill Road in a relatively lightly developed stretch between Tysons Corner and Reston. No need for any supervisors to attend: They had hired somebody to listen to the public for them.
Don't look now, but American democracy is being privatized.
In Fairfax -- and in Maryland, the District and at the federal level -- it is becoming routine for elected officials to pay consultants to be buffers between the unwashed masses and the decision makers who handle land use, highway construction and divisive social issues. Fairfax taxpayers who want to speak to their public officials instead are paying $30,000 for a K Street consultant to listen to them.
In the civics game, 400 people is huge. The candidates for governor would sell one of their kids to get a crowd like that. But Fairfax supervisors will hear the public's views in a 28-page report from CirclePoint, a consultancy offering "communication solutions."
Had the supervisors handled this themselves, they'd have heard people talk about buying houses in the Hunter Mill area knowing that the county plan precluded dense development there. They'd have heard others argue that Fairfax's burgeoning job market requires a more urban approach. They'd have heard reason and passion.
Instead, hours were wasted talking about process. Did consultants accurately portray what citizens said? Who got invited to what meeting?
The consultants produce a miasma of corporate jargon, a fog of "imaging" and "visioning" and the obfuscating cliches of therapeutic lingo: "I hear you saying you aren't comfortable with. . . ."
"You say over and over what an open process this is," Jeannette Twomey, president of the Hunter Mill Defense League, which opposes the project, told the consultants. "But I don't see any supervisors here tonight."
"This process is a complete loss of passion about this area and what we love about it," said Kevin Carl of Vienna. "How is the passion of this large group going to be communicated in 24 pages?"
Steve Lee, the facilitator, answered frankly: "I'm not quite sure how to translate passion into text." Lee, who teaches conflict management, was the face of the county at the meeting, yet because he's a hired gun, he easily skirted tough questions.
"The supervisors' whole idea is to buffer themselves from the public," Carl said later. "This poor guy is up there, really, to make this just one more ho-hum decision for the county."
Farming out the job of listening to citizens "does put another layer on the process," said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), "but when done right, it can bring the community together to play a role before we get to a yes-no decision." Supervisors were at a regular board meeting that night.
Fairfax is far from alone in using contractors to separate the public from decision makers. In the District, when residents and commuters showed up to speak on a controversial proposal to tear down the Whitehurst Freeway, they found themselves assigned to "breakout groups" run by consultants expert at diffusing dissent.
Maryland residents attending public sessions on the eternally divisive intercounty connector found only a room full of posters laying out plans for the highway. Contractors and state staffers answered individual questions, but residents could neither hear from one another nor confront elected officials.
The Bush administration has pioneered ways to buffer itself from public criticism, such as invitation-only forums on Social Security. When the D.C. Council tried to stop trains from carrying hazardous chemicals through the city center, the feds pushed to keep the trains rolling, using regulatory sleight of hand to circumvent the law's demand for public hearings.
"The best ideas I've had for legislation have come from public forums," said Del. Stephen C. Shannon (D-Fairfax), who was at the Hunter Mill meeting. "Public officials must be directly accountable to voters."
"People feel patronized by this whole process," said state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), who also attended. "Decision makers, not staff or contractors, have to listen to the people. That's who government is for."