Can democracy work if corporations are free to spend their limitless plunder to affect the outcome of community dialogue and electoral politics?
Last week, our community got a firsthand look at the dysfunction that results when ill-gotten gains bump up against authentic community participation.
The venue was Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force meeting. For the uninitiated, this task force is the political love child of Gov. Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. Their controversial deal scrapped two hard-fought 2014 ballot initiatives concerning communities’ right to regulate oil and gas operators in lieu of a governor-appointed task force established to study the state’s existing regulations and recommend improvements to the Legislature.
The task force invited community members to express their opinions about whether regulations should be strengthened to better balance human and environmental health with the interests of oil and gas drillers.
Meeting turnout flooded the room. Task force members heard passionate voices on both sides of the debate, and when time ran out, 60 others were still waiting to speak.
This is how it’s supposed to work, right? Just how did money get in the way last week? In ways both direct and subtle. Let’s look at the direct influence first.
Upon arriving at the meeting you may have been greeted by bright-eyed 20-somethings in blue T-shirts. To the uninformed task force member or attending resident, their presence under the Energy Citizen banner might lead one to believe that many young people in Southwest Colorado just can’t get enough natural gas drilling.
Perhaps that’s true. Or, maybe, they can’t get enough of jobs that pay $25 an hour – the rate offered by a recruiter who did the rounds at Fort Lewis College likely searching for good looking and diverse students to wave the Energy Citizen banner, a front-group of the American Petroleum Institute. One of these students is the roommate of a friend. He freely admitted to not knowing much about the issues and, on reflection, felt used through the whole interaction.
While that’s just plain obnoxious, how about the subtle effects of money? A question: What message is implied when a community affairs representative from BP asks nonprofits they fund to attend the task force meeting and publicly share the benefits of their “partnership”? Do organizations that lavished praise on the oil and gas industry – organizations like Music in the Mountains or Volunteers of America – feel so knowledgeable and passionate about oil and gas regulations as to have a genuine interest in participating? Maybe. Or perhaps the oil and gas industry leveraged those donations dollars to bolster its public image at an opportune moment.
Let’s go with the idea that corporations are people for a second. What jerks. Last week proved that old-fashioned organizing works, but it also underscored the uphill battle real people have in getting heard when corporate dollars pay – directly and indirectly – for support.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Olson is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.