Elected officials appointed to joint powers authorities and regional bodies can and often do find themselves being swept along with the momentum of “group think.” In the process, critical thinking and sound decision-making that reflects the needs and values of the constituency that elected them gives way to a “go-along-to-get-along” culture among elected peers.
Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit chugs forward, despite evidence of inadequate planning and inefficient board oversight. In San Rafael, it is estimated that SMART will transport fewer than 200 passengers per day. Moving the transit center will disrupt bus service for 9,000 riders. When the trains cross Second and Third streets, tens of thousands of vehicles per day will be affected.
Yet San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips wasn’t able to get this item on the SMART agenda. SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian claims allowing time to address the problem will jeopardize $48 million in funding, so full-speed ahead.
Recently the Transportation Authority of Marin tried to build support to lift the sales tax cap that protects the public from excessive taxation and fiscal irresponsibility. They met a wall of resistance, but that hasn’t stopped them. Now TAM’s board has authorized $45,000 for a poll to “assess transportation needs,” which is like asking the public what transportation presents they’d like from Santa.
Not only is TAM eyeing our wallets, so are the authors of Senate Bill 1. This bill would increase taxes and fees, estimated to generate $6 billion more for transportation. To qualify for funds, local projects would be required to include “complete streets,” with walking and bike lanes, which often reduce motor vehicle lanes. This regressive tax would hit hardest the people least able to pay — small businesses with landscape or cleaning services that depend on a vehicle.
How have public agencies gotten out of synch with the people they are supposed to represent?
Elizabeth Kolbert, writer for the New Yorker, might have an answer. In her article titled “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” she describes “myside bias.” Myside bias is the tendency to stick with the beliefs of one’s primary group or closest affiliates. The desire to collaborate with peers takes precedence over facts and critical thinking.
Kolbert’s research traces the history of myside bias. “Our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing and with making sure they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.”
The ill effects of myside bias in agencies like TAM and SMART is predictable. Individuals, well qualified to serve on the Board of Supervisors or as a city council member, get appointed to a joint powers authority. The complexities make it unrealistic to claim expertise, so the board relies on the executive director, who relies on consultants.
The “myside” relationships are deepened as elected officials spend time with each other at monthly mayors and council members’ dinners and at the SMART, TAM, MCE or other board meetings.
As their allegiance to their peer group of elected colleagues increases, their capacity to represent the point of view of their constituency diminishes.
What can we do to transform “myside bias”?
The nonprofit sector presents one model where the board is elected and comprised of subject matter, legal and financial experts, along with representatives from user and community groups. The civil grand jury provides another model for using well-researched findings to expose and challenge myside thinking. Still another model would be a role for community groups which organize geographically, like Sustainable TamAlmonte, or around issues, like Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans or the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers.
Thomas Watson Jr., former president of IBM, sums it up when he writes, “Thinking things through is hard work and it sometimes seems safer to follow the crowd. That blind adherence to such group thinking is, in the long run, far more dangerous than independently thinking things through.”
Our healthy democracy depends on balancing “myside” bias with an “our side” perspective.
Susan Kirsch of Mill Valley is a nonprofit consultant and core group member of the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, or CO$T.
See Marin IJ article HERE
See Marin IJ article HERE