On April 30th, 6 members of the Heart of the River coalition attended the third so-called “community discussion” on the planned dam and reservoir on White River. The coalition is a grassroots group of nature lovers seeking to increase public awareness about the potential effects of such a large and impactful project.
Our 6 representatives, comprised mainly of polite seniors, were treated rudely by the proponent (Anderson Corporation for Economic Development) and the event organizer (Connect! MadisonCounty). They directed the security force to arbitrarily suppress our efforts to use the lobby outside the auditorium to inform attendees that they could join the coalition and seek answers to the many outstanding questions which exist at this early stage of the process.
First, they ordered our one small (11” x 17”) sign removed from the lobby of the auditorium. The sign (“Doubting the Dam”) was affixed to a canoe paddle. They said there were rules which prohibited signage. When I asked to see a copy of such rules, the security person just sneered and ignored the request. They did not ask the promoters to remove their promotional signs in the lobby. Threatened with forcible expulsion, we reluctantly removed the sign.
Our group continued to offer our half-page flyer to persons arriving. We were well received by almost everyone entering the lobby, and many signed-up for our email list. Yet after about 15 minutes, another security person asked us to remove our flyers and flyering conversations from the building. When I asked why, he said that “word had come down that flyering is not allowed”. When I noted that Connect! MadisonCounty had several tables of promotional material and many staff and various consultants in attendance, he replied that they had rented the building and that they were thus “the client”.
The “community discussion” session inside the auditorium was virtually the same format as the previous two– highly pre-scripted and carefully orchestrated to promote the dam and discourage public criticism. Several times, ominous reference was made by the moderator to the necessity for the audience to be civil, e.g. no public outbursts, and the great job the security staff had done to maintain good order. It was amazing how they dared to refer to the evening as a discussion while aggressively repressing any hints of criticism, disagreement or dissent.
According to the printed program, the “Community Discussion” was sponsored by three local entities: Community Hospital Anderson, St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital, and a private floor covering company. The two hospitals, as public interest organizations, should be concerned and embarrassed by such shabby treatment of the public who went to considerable effort to attend the event and to advocate simply for full public disclosure and a complete and comprehensive review process. Personal health is partly dependent on happiness (and the absence of undue stress), and some studies have shown that good governance and unfettered access to public process are, among other factors, directly correlated to personal happiness and thus our health. By the active repression of public response, the event was neither an honest “community discussion” nor an effective way to “connect” the community, as was billed by the promoter and the sponsors.
Going forward, hopefully the two hospitals, and other event sponsors, will insist on fair and courteous treatment of the public, including any dissenters, as the process of necessary further studies and public review unfolds over time. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in support of open public process, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.