Archive for September, 2013

This is another article related to a local challenge we face in my hometown and a suggestion about how we might deal with it non-punitively.  It appears in a local newsblog and you can go there if you want to see the comments of some local folks. 

There is little doubt that some of our neighbors in Davis have health problems that are exacerbated by wood smoke.  There is also little doubt that other neighbors enjoy having wood fires and that some use wood or wood products as a way to heat their homes.  This leads to a conflict over interests/needs, but it is a conflict that is fairly localized—that is, between people who live near one another, people who share a common space and who, presumably, would be best served by resolving the conflict themselves without the automatic threat of punishment from the city.

We have the tools and resources to deal with wood smoke conflicts in this way—to find alternative forms of conflict resolution that will serve the needs of those whose health is adversely affected while providing those who desire to burn wood some latitude to do so.

I would propose we consider two options to help neighbors resolve such conflicts:

First and foremost, people should be given resources so they can seek out neighbors and deal face-to-face with them in a respectful and direct way.  Some people with health conditions would no doubt like to talk directly with neighbors whose fires are causing harm, but they may not be sure how to go about it.  A first option would be to provide sufferers with a “script”—a standardized language that they might use to talk to their neighbors.  Such a “script” helps people have respectful and clear language to use in talking to others.  It could go something like this:

My name is X and I live at X.  I (or a family member) suffer from a respiratory/heart/other condition that is made worse by wood smoke.  There are times when smoke coming from your house has been harmful to me (my family member).  Most recently on X date smoke caused Y.  I am not here to tell you to stop burning wood. I am asking you to understand the problems smoke causes me (or a family member) and ask you to consider working with me to try to diminish the effect.  Here is some literature that the City has produced about when it is okay to burn and when it is not. Maybe we could chat about the recommendations once you’ve had a chance to read them. These recommendations may not work in every case, but I think if you would be willing to follow them it might help resolve the problem I am having.  Also, I would be happy to give you my phone number so we can keep in touch about this and find a way to work things out in the future.  I really desire that you understand I don’t want to cause you a problem. I do want you to understand how smoke affects me (or my family member).

As implied in the script (and it is a VERY rough idea of how it might look), the city would also provide a brochure on safe burning practices and products that neighbors could share with each other and discuss.  Both the script and the brochure could be downloaded from the City website.  Please note that such a script helps the person focus on his/her needs (or those of a family member) and seeks to develop a shared, dialogue-based approach to dealing with the problem.

While such an approach might help some people, others may be unwilling or fearful to use it (or may have tried it without success) and would benefit from assistance from a neutral third party.  A third-party organization (a non-profit for example) could be assigned by the city to handle cases in which an affected party needs help to deal with a neighbor.  The third-party organization would be staffed with trained volunteer mediators.  In this case the process would work as follows:

1. A person who is affected by wood smoke would contact the assigned agency and provide a summary of their concern and the address of the house from which the smoke is coming.

2. The agency would send a letter to that address that would state the problem and refer to relevant city ordinances but stress that the neighbor would like to deal with this without involving the city.  The letter would also stress that participation is voluntary and that a facilitated discussion among parties could be set up to occur over the phone or in person to try to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution.  The letter would include the same brochure from the city referenced above and ask the person to read it. The letter would provide contact information for the agency (but NOT the neighbor) and could include the following:

We would ask you to contact our agency via email or phone, referencing this letter.  The following are options available to you in response to this letter:

1.  If you believe that the person who is seeking to discuss this matter with you is in error—because you do not burn wood, were not burning wood during the period in question, or for any other reason—please let us know.  We will get back in touch with the person for follow up with them. Mistakes can be made, and we want to assure that there are no misunderstandings.

2.     If you would like to commit to following the guidelines in the brochure, please let us know and we will happily monitor how things go with your neighbor and be back in touch if there is a problem.

3.     If you would like to speak with your neighbor in a facilitated dialogue to understand their concerns or try to reach another solution, please let us know. Also, let us know whether you would like to do that face to face or over the phone.

4.     If you prefer not to take any actions at this time, let us know, and we will inform your neighbor. 

If we do not hear back from you by XXX, we will assume you have chosen the fourth option and will inform your neighbor, who may choose to take other actions.

Whatever you decide to do, please recognize that we will not be sharing any information about your decision with the city. Any discussions we facilitate are confidential. We are mediators seeking to help resolve this issue and are independent of the city even though they have assigned us to play this role.

The foregoing examples are rough but provide ideas about how a voluntary conflict-resolution strategy related to wood burning could work.  Such an approach puts the tools of non-violent and non-punitive conflict resolution into citizens’ hands, thereby strengthening our social web while reducing the burden on the city.

Davis is fortunate to have experienced mediators (some of whom were part of the one-time city-funded community mediation program) who are willing to volunteer their time to manage such a program and offer facilitation services for it.  It is my hope that such approaches will become routine in dealing with conflicts in our city.

(Thanks to Diane Clarke for her input on this article)

This post is another that is relevant to my hometown and the challenges we face here.  Background reading (here and here) may be required to understand parts of it but I hope that the message’s relevance to other communities will not be lost.

Markets fail when transactions do not result in efficient outcomes from a societal point of view.  One cause of market failure concerns the problem of one partner in a transaction having more or better information than the other.  The lack of (quality) information by one party leads to power imbalances that can harm one party and inappropriately confer benefits on another that a free market transaction would not allow.

Two recent examples of information asymmetries related to land use decisions in and around Davis explain why we as citizens tend to approach such decisions in what appears to be narrow, self-interested and ultimately very conservative ways.  In both cases it is clear that one party in the transaction possesses more and better information that risks placing the City at a disadvantage in the transaction it is negotiating.

1. The Cannery project, whatever its value in terms of housing provided, suffers from a significant problem of lack of connectivity to the rest of the city.  This is especially true for alternate forms of transportation such as biking and walking.  This problem is significant because the City has set clear goals concerning the reduction of carbon emissions—most of which are generated by transportation choices.  Developing Cannery in a way that people living there have choices concerning transportation is therefore in the City’s interests and the City should negotiate any agreements with owners/developers/builders with this goal (among others) in mind.

But citizens are at an information disadvantage because the owners can merely say (and have said), “What you are requesting (in two grade separated crossings, for example), is too expensive.”  But of course the question in return must be: “Too expensive relative to what?”  Since the owners/developers/builders are not required by law to disclose how much they stand to earn from the City’s decision to change the zoning classification that will allow them to develop it according to their wishes, it is not possible for citizens to judge the veracity of the owner’s statement

Of course the City can hire (and apparently has hired) an independent firm to estimate this. Of course the owner can merely dispute these estimates.  The result is that the citizens of Davis are not privy to the actual information and therefore cannot determine whether they can and should press for the preferred infrastructure changes.  Further, when the owner asserts that it has the best interests of the City of Davis in mind and also wants “connectivity”, this assertion is not useful information (from a transaction point of view) because it may or may not be true.

In addition, the owner has much more information about the City because the City is required to conduct its business in a transparent way whereas the owner is not required to disclose private deals that concern the property.  The owner also has information about individual decision makers and their needs and what it may take to sway them to accept its proposals.  This is not an accusation of wrongdoing but merely highlights that information asymmetries exist at multiple levels and leaves citizens in a position of not really knowing whether they are getting all they might get out of the project.

2. The so-called “land swap” concerning the Shriner and Mace 391 properties also suffers from information asymmetries—also at several levels.  Peripheral development will always be a cause of much public debate in this City given the value of the surrounding land for agricultural purposes, concerns about sprawl and the need to consider the best ways to grow revenue and jobs for Davis. However, the debate is almost always constrained by the lack of full information available to citizens that will inform them as they negotiate with landowners/purchasers/developers.

In this case there are several pieces of information held by those proposing the project but not shared with the public.  This information would greatly enhance the citizens’ ability to consider the pros and cons of the project and negotiate from an informed position. These include (but are not limited to):

  • What information indicates that 493 acres is necessary for a park?  What market research indicates that this size is critical?
  • What kinds of firms have indicated an upfront interest in moving into such a park should it be developed?  (I realize that it is not possible to name the firms—there are privacy issues that must be considered, but what kinds and size of firms from what sectors have expressed interest would seem to be the kind of information that should be forthcoming).
  • What are the 2:1 mitigation options that have been considered, and are they demonstrably in the interests of the City? Or does mitigation occur on land far away in a way that does not preserve farmland of equal value to that which is lost?

Again, it is not helpful for those proposing the project to merely state that “This project is a win/win for the City” or “As long-term residents of Davis we have the best interests of the City in mind”.  This information does not inform the discussion but merely opens any critique of the project into accusations against those making the critique of engaging personal attacks against people who clearly have the best interests of the City in mind.

Further, as in the case of the Cannery, those proposing the project have much more information about City decisions and have the ability to use that information as leverage points to sway votes in their direction.

Is any of this evil?  No.  It is just good old deal making.  It is people acting in their self-interest to achieve an end that will benefit them financially.  There is nothing evil in that and I do not begrudge them of it.  However, we as citizens must recognize that we are at an information disadvantage here.  We need to acknowledge that significant information asymmetries exist and they risk placing us in a position of achieving a less than optimal transaction from the perspective of what our City needs.

This explains why I, and many others, approach such transactions in a very cautious way.  This is why we ask for things like Measure R and “slow go” approaches.  We know that the asymmetries exist and we want the time to gather as much information as we can. We want to compel those proposing such “deals” to expose as much information as possible.  We want to create less information imbalance so that our interests are not subordinated to the interests of others.

I have no illusions that we will ever achieve something approaching “Pareto optimal” outcomes in such transactions but it is absolutely in our interests to reduce the asymmetries as much as possible to achieve outcomes that contribute to the broadest social good as possible.