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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Losing I Can Stand, But Quitting? Water Committee Proposes Dissolution

So suppose you've organized a local environmental action group. You've had some small successes, educated your neighbors, raised awareness, even gotten donations from residents and local governments. You lose one campaign to form a governing body to carry out similar functions, but you still have $14,000 in the bank to continue your work. Do you...
  • A. retool your government plan to create a better agency that voters will accept;
  • B. sustain your group's momentum by continuing to work on environmental issues; or
  • C. quit?
The Interlakes Water Quality Committee is choosing C. After losing its bid to create a water project district to fund water quality projects with tax dollars, the IWQC's executive board will recommend disbanding the volunteer organization entirely and refunding its donors.

I'm surprised. The IWQC has done good work, promoting the water monitoring project (of which I am still a wader-wearing member), funding coupons for zero-phosphorus fertilizer to reduce pollution, and helping build the Wolff Dam on Richland Slough to control run-off into Lake Madison. The IWQC's efforts earned enough respect to win funding from both the City of Madison and Lake County (and that's not easy—I've tried!). To end those efforts, especially when they still have $14K left in the kitty to pursue more projects, seems an unproductive overreaction to voters' rejection of creating a government entity to carry out such projects.

Some comments in MDL's coverage of the story (sorry, no link! print edition only, 2009.07.27, page 1) just don't sit right with me:

IWQC board chair Robert Todd tells MDL, "We currently feel we are not able to continue." Put $14,000 in my bank account, and I could continue for quite some time. The committee formed to do much more than just campaign for a water project district... didn't it? I know we had stars in our eyes about forming the district and getting $3M in stimulus money to do 30 projects all at once... but is it that hard to come back to reality and concentrate on doing one or two small projects, as the committee has done until now?

Refunds: The IWQC plans to hand its $14K bank balance over to the Lake Madison Development Association, which has been the main source of its money. However, city and county taxpayers get no cut, since, according to Todd, that money was spent specifically on water quality testing through DSU. I guess I didn't know the city and county had designated their donations for that specific purpose. Hmmm....

Dropping the Ball: IWQC board member Jan Nicolay expresses the hope that "Maybe somewhere down the road someone will pick up the idea [of a water project district] and move it forward." Yet the IWQC is in the best position to sustain the momentum toward that goal. If Nicolay and the rest of the board really want to see a water project district come to fruition someday, wouldn't it be more logical to maintain a functioning, solvent organization that has a demonstrated record of educating the public on water quality issues and serves as a forum for bringing like-minded residents together to organize successful projects? Even if the current IWQC board is tired of politics (and I understand completely if this summer's campaign and the bruising defeat on July 18 had that effect), the board could just keep its head down, stick with small but meaningful projects, and remain as a resource for future organizers who want to give another election a go.

In politics, you win some, and you lose some. But losing a vote doesn't mean you have to accept that the majority is right. Folks who voted yes on the water project district (and a fair number of the folks who voted no) still believe there are projects we can do to improve the watershed in Lake County. The Interlakes Water Quality Committee had built up talent and funds to make such projects happen. And as a volunteer organization, they don't have to answer to the majority; they can just do what they know is right.

I wasn't convinced a water project district was the right thing to do. But I'm not convinced abandoning the cause completely is the right course, either. It will be interesting to see what course the IWQC chooses at its next (last?) meeting on Thursday, August 6, 7 p.m., at the Madison Public Library.

1 comment:

  1. It is very disheartening when a group of people tell us how much they believe in their cause, mention a long list of immediate goals and benefits, bombard voters with information, spend a strong amount of campaign funds to convince us to support their cause...Then when the first vote goes sour...Walk away.

    Here's another idea that really will work. Take a break, allow yourselves time to regroup and recharge and give yourselves plenty of time to mourn your loss, then build a bridge and get over it.

    If the project has credibility and need today, it will have the same need tomorrow, and we certainly need leaders of the effort to stay committed. When voters turn down an idea they're simply saying, "I'm not convinced of the need, yet."

    Now is not the time to quit. Losing an election is like losing a friend you really care about. Very humbling, but still worth the effort.


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