Theatrical or citizen-driven democracy? - Why discussions about further reducing nitrates in Decatur drinking water should be citizen-driven
Recently, Decatur citizens have begun to question the process by which some members of the Decatur City Council are making decisions. They are concerned that council members simply tolerate public feedback because it is legally required and will not be influenced by public comments regardless of how compelling the arguments brought forth are. Recent discussion about further reducing nitrates in the drinking water exemplifies the concerns that many citizens have.
REDUCING NITRATES IN THE DRINKING WATER – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit for the amount of nitrates in drinking water at 10 mg/L, a standard that Decatur successfully meets as a result of its nitrate removal facility. However, recent research has found that levels of nitrates in drinking water that are below 10 mg/L are connected to elevated risks of some forms of cancer such as colorectal cancer, and thus, a stricter voluntary standard for Decatur could be considered.
On June 17, the city council voted to approve an action plan for Lake Decatur Watershed Management (https://decatur.novusagenda.com/agendapub…/MeetingView.aspx… [New Business #9, Memorandum]). Commendably, one component of the approved plan was to postpone discussion to later in 2019 on whether to further reduce nitrate levels in drinking water thereby giving the city time to assemble more research on whether a quantifiable benefit to reducing nitrates can be established.
Since city council policy was established in June, the council has not received a summary of research from city staff, but has received information from a Decatur citizen and an external stakeholder. Benefits to reducing nitrates were presented on both October 21 by a Millikin University Environmental Studies major that is performing an internship under my supervision (http://decaturil.swagit.com/mini/10222019-537/#5) and prior to the November 4 meeting via a brief by a staff member of Prairie Rivers Network.
Contrary to the council-approved action plan for Lake Decatur watershed management, after receiving information about the quantifiable benefit to reducing nitrates, at least one council member attempted to refute the claims of the brief while refusing to allow the author to address the council member’s concerns at a later date (http://decaturil.swagit.com/mini/11042019-1680/#34). (Moreover, the same council member made an incorrect claim about the content of a separate meeting regarding nitrates and multiple council members refused to hear from the City Manager who participated in the meeting and would publicly refute the incorrect claim.)
INCORRECT CLAIMS CAN CORRODE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE - Incorrect claims at public meetings, combined with prohibition of information that would refute incorrect claims, corrodes public confidence in the process by which city policy is established and is the antithesis of open and transparent government. Furthermore, closed mindedness by elected officials represses diversity of thoughts and ideas and is likely to decrease citizen and organization participation and assistance.
CITY GOVERNMENT MUST BECOME CITIZEN-DRIVEN AND CITIZENS SHOULD DEMAND BETTER FROM ELECTED OFFICIALS – Before voluntarily implementation of stricter standards for nitrates in the drinking water, the city must do its due diligence including examining potential health benefits, estimating financial costs, and ensuring that additional nitrate removal does not have unintended consequences in other areas of the water production system. With that said, the city council has the ability to explore the possibility and should do so. Most importantly, the city should solicit public input and work collaboratively with external stakeholders who have expertise in the issue.
Decatur faces significant challenges. Our population is one of the top ten fastest shrinking in the country, our poverty rate is above the national average, our unemployment rate is above state and national averages, racial disparities are considered to be among the highest in the country, and median household income is below state and national averages.
It will take the combined efforts of all 71,000 of our citizens to reverse these trends. City government must be citizen-driven and embrace input and participation by citizens and organizations rather than discourage it. Decatur’s city government should strive to be a leader in promoting acceptance of diverse views, adopt citizen-led initiatives, and model open and transparent government. Our short-term success and long-term future are dependent upon it.
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