Monday, March 1, 2010

Only God Can Make A Tree

Heights Park
Heights Park

Well, God and Richardson City Council member Amir Omar. Omar revealed his long-teased secret project at Monday night's Richardson City Council meeting. "'Tree the Town' is a progressive tree planting initiative with the goal of adding 50,000 trees to Richardson."

You might think planting trees is a no-brainer. After the jump, let's look at the spectrum of reactions.

Public reaction to this project makes for a good case study in democracy in the Internet age. Jeffrey Weiss, in The Dallas Morning News Richardson blog, more or less summarizes my first take when he said, "Seriously? That's the big deal? A Richardson-specific ongoing Arbor Day? ... I'm as big a fan of trees as the next person, but this seems sorta like having someone hint over and over and over that a steak is coming and then you get salad."

By Monday noon, the comment thread was eighteen comments long. By comparison, last week's blog item about the upcoming bond election ("It's official: $66 million in bonds to be on May ballot") attracted only nine comments, which just goes to show what skilled politicians have known for a long time -- if you want to distract the public's attention from an important but controversial issue, give them something frivolous to talk about instead. (Not that trees are frivolous things. And not that I think Amir Omar is guilty of doing this. I'm just sayin'.)

And talk they did. One DMN reader expressed his opposition by saying, "So, the city is broke...the streets need fixing...the residents are angry, and tax revenues are down, and Amir wants trees." Let's deconstruct this. "The city is broke." Well, no it isn't. "The streets need fixing." Well, there's $24 million in the upcoming bond election for streets. "The residents are angry." Well, some are, about anything and everything, no argument there. "Tax revenues are down." Well, which is it, is government taxing too much or too little? "Amir wants trees." Well, good for Amir Omar for demonstrating that we can do more than one thing at a time. And for finding a way to do this thing by enlisting voluntary resources. The tree program utilizes sponsorships, volunteers and non-profits to plant and maintain trees.

Other reactions are simply ad hominem attacks (e.g., "Slagel-puppet Amir Omar", "This isn't a bad idea. It's just the author of the idea is bad."). This kind of knee-jerk opposition is not a new phenomenon, but the Internet enables it to reach larger audiences faster than ever before. Communication is important in successful government in the Internet Age. I'm still not sure whether Omar's tactic was the right one, keeping details of his project secret while simultaneously building expectations for it. The reality did not live up to the hype, as I feared, but on the other hand, keeping the public informed all along the way risked death by a thousand cuts. Would Omar have been able to line up and keep all the non-public support he's achieved if the critics were taking pot shots week in and week out during preliminary planning? Who knows? What's known for sure is that Omar has managed to get a $34 million dollar project going, planting 50,000 trees in Richardson right-of-ways, parks and trails using private efforts. You can't argue with success. And this project looks like a winner.

Reaction at the City Council meeting where this project was unveiled revealed that Amir Omar's "secret" project maybe wasn't so secret after all. City staff were obviously deeply involved in the project. Several council members indicated that they were briefed on the project as far back as several months ago. The project's name, "Tree the Town" was suggested by a neighborhood association president. Eleven members of the public were clued in enough to be present to speak in favor of the project (no one opposed), including the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, two different UT-Dallas fraternities, two different neighborhood association presidents, even the blogger behind the web site whose anonymous commenters regularly rip the city council. Apparently, everyone in Richardson except me and a few anonymous commenters on DMN knew all about this project and they all approve. I guess planting trees really is a no-brainer. Or else Amir Omar knows enough about communication, about community outreach, about enlisting support, to make sure that even no-brainer projects are not derailed by knee-jerk anti-government sentiment. The city council could learn something by studying how community support for this project was lined up, then replicate that with more challenging issues facing the city.

By the way, Council member Bob Macy, as seems to be too often the case, made the one discordant comment at the meeting, saying to Amir Omar, "I was afraid you were a tree hugger for a while." Later, one visitor meaningfully asked, "If Amir were a tree hugger, would that be such a bad thing?" What makes Macy's comment particularly grating is that he defeated Pris Hayes in the 2009 City Council election. Pris Hayes' own contributions to environmental causes in Richardson had been commended earlier Monday night in remarks by City Manager Bill Keffler. The voters replaced a live oak with a hackberry when they made that change on the city council.

No comments: