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Commissioners appear to deal in willful ignorance

Rarely is the public the beneficiary of any elected officials unedited thoughts. For this I sincerely thank Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher who laid it out for us in the meeting of June 11 regarding Port Westward.

And thanks to the Spotlight for making Fisher’s statement known to a broader base than just those members of the public who were in attendance.

I am referring to this quote: “There are groups that come before this board, constantly, saying they represent the public,” Fisher said. “I would suggest that they represent a very small fraction of the public. I know I live in Clatskanie, and I can produce 62 people that would be very much in favor of the development there. You can walk down the street in St. Helens and find a lot of people who will say that they support what’s going on. What’s difficult for us as elected leaders is to balance that — those who come to meetings and make noise, and those who stand in the street and talk to you.”

Isn’t what Fisher says counter to everything we’ve been taught about how the system works? Most of us were raised believing our government is a big tent under which all of us reside. All views are welcome and encouraged to participate. In fact, I’ve always thought the more you participated, the more you were taken seriously.

Now I’m told it is just the opposite. If we appear too often, if we talk too much, we’re thought of as noisy. When we talk, it is not translated as concern; it is translated as a nuisance.

I do admire Fisher’s open and forthright statement, leaving little room for doubt about which opinions he will support and which he will ignore. Unfortunately, our group happens to be on the losing end of his consideration.

Clean Columbia County was created during a gathering at the Kozy Korner Cafe in October 2012. We came together in direct response to the Port of St. Helens’ approval for coal to ship through our county by rail and by barge. Shortly after, we learned that Global Partners LP was beginning to ship crude oil and those shipments were putting the entire Highway 30 corridor at risk because of the explosive nature of this particular type of crude oil. Concern? Yes, concern on many levels.

Since that time, other groups have been formed in our county, and that is either positive or annoying, depending on your view. Taking action, becoming educated about coal and crude oil, we go to meetings and we speak at hearings. Isn’t that what an engaged citizenry is supposed to do?

Our groups share another concern, and that is one of process or, I should probably say, lack of process in our county. Where are the town hall meetings to discuss what direction the public wants our county to move in? Why are decisions being made behind closed doors by a small group of elected officials?

The emphasis here is on “elected.”

We’re not talking corporate CEOs who don’t need to inform the public about much of anything. We’re talking about power and authority derived from one source only — the public. The public includes everyone who lives in our county. It includes every opinion and every concern. Nowhere have I read or heard that elected officials are supposed to judge what is or isn’t of public concern. They are supposed to learn what is of public concern by listening to us. And, yes, “us” includes those they don’t personally agree with. And, “listening” requires wanting to understand, not wanting to ignore.

Right now Columbia County is moving in the direction of a fossil-fuel hub ... emphasis on the word “hub.” We’re not making anything. There is no value-added component. We simply move commodities from one place to another, and the other place often means overseas. We are participating in moving our country’s resources to foreign countries for their consumption. Regardless of whether you believe we should be promoting fossil fuel consumption at all, it would be more palatable if, at least, we were the beneficiaries of the consumption.

We expand Port Westward at the cost of losing the agricultural business that exists all around Port Westward. Organic mint produced by Mike Seely will not survive with a coating of coal dust. Blueberries, strawberries, other fruits and vegetables won’t benefit either. Certainly the fish in the Columbia River will take a beating when Panamex ships swim upstream to collect our fossil fuel cargo. These behemoths will become a daily visitor.

Finally, where does sustainability fit in the vision of Port Westward? When China moves away from coal, when all countries move away from crude oil, what will Columbia County be left with? It doesn’t bode well for us that we’re putting all our eggs in the fossil fuel basket.

Why is a healthy public debate on this subject being avoided? After all, you might be right, Commissioner Fisher. Maybe the majority of residents in Columbia County want Port Westward to thrive as a fossil fuel hub. The main question we have is, why don’t you want to know?

Nancy Ward is the president of Clean Columbia County.