Commentary: What is leadership in a society that elects leaders and expects them to be accountable to the public?
An elected official is not obligated to vote for what is popular, but they must answer to their constituents. The legitimacy of representative government rests on this. If officials ignore their constituents’ interests and concerns, a vigorous public might unseat them at election time. In theory, that’s how it works; in practice, we are very bad at this, which is why government feels less democratic than it formally is. We tend to elect and re-elect the same rascals and let them off the hook for their actions; then we wonder why government seems opaque.
The public has been allowed little meaningful input into the proposed Gila River diversion or whether alternative conservation projects should be explored. The CAP entity (or CAPE), the organization of local governments and subdivisions that holds authority over the proposed diversion, is not directly elected by the public. However, elected officials – county and city governments – voted on whether to join the entity.
The argument presented in each county and city chamber in 2015 was less about the merits of the diversion itself, how the water would be used, and who would ultimately benefit, but about “having a seat at the table.” That’s one theory of leadership: if we’re involved, maybe we can lead the outcome.
Yet this proverbial table was from its inception a wagon being pulled by the Interstate Streams Commission toward one expensive project, precluding other options, with little public debate and certainly no referendum to measure public support and give elected officials some guidance.
When you climb into a wagon, you are not being a leader; you are being steered. More than one local official has even confided to me that they figure a future generation will sort this all out. How’s that for leadership?
Now the CAPE is seeking a unanimous vote of its membership to amend its powers so it can negotiate a public-private arrangement with Freeport-McMoRan to pipe water from Bill Evans Lake into Luna County.
Grant County Commissioners engaged in a deliberative process when this came before them in July. They had a robust debate including residents, activist organizations, and the commissioners themselves. They ended up postponing their decision so they could gather more information and local input. (Update: They approved the new Joint Powers Agreement when it came up for a vote again in August.)
In contrast, Deming and Luna County governments tend to vote unanimously with little open deliberation. When the amended Joint Powers Agreement came before the county commission - currently a body of two – it was hardly a surprise that they voted to approve it. Nonetheless, a healthy turnout of Luna County residents asked questions: How might this private company profit from public money? Who would benefit from the water? Would it be for agricultural use or sold on the market? Had the commissioners themselves asked these questions?
Commissioners did not respond directly and instead talked about “sitting at the table” again, as if we were back in 2015. That isn’t what they were voting on. The CAPE exists. We are now, supposedly, debating how to steer it. Wasn’t that the point?
This rehashed talk of “sitting at the table” sounded more like “sit down.” They were polite. There were the trappings of a public process. They sat patiently through public comments but did not discuss the substance of the resolution. Then they voted as a bloc to approve it. Once more, the deal was done.
Formally, this counts as representative government, even if it squeaks like a rusty wagon.
Algernon D’Ammassa writes the “Desert Sage” column for the Deming Headlight, Las Cruces Sun-News, and Silver City Sun-News. Share your thoughts at email@example.com.