I couldn't make it to the Barbara Lifton press conference last week, so someone else from The Star went.  When she got back she was concerned about something the Assemblywoman had said about how her call to halt salt mining under Cayuga Lake was in response to concerns from constituents.  She had asked whether Lifton had met with mine officials before taking this action.  Lifton said no, then added she would be happy to meet with them.  The reporter asked me, "How does she define 'constituents?'"

I have been mulling that all week.  It is a troubling question, because arguably the Assemblywoman is starting a chain of events that could -- in the worst case scenario -- shut down one of Lansing's largest industries, one that provides 200 good jobs to local working people, and contributes in a myriad of ways to the community.  Even if her claim that shifting mining below dry land would preserve the company and all those jobs is true, is it a good idea to ask the governor to effectively halt mining under the lake without any contact with the mine?  Isn't the company a constituent, not to mention those 200 employees?

There is a debate in the geological community about whether or not it is safe to mine beneath the lake.  Given this company's responsible, caring record of behavior, it seems a bit loopy to me to think that if they thought they might collapse the mine and destroy the lake that they would continue mining under it.  Even if this were the sleaziest company in America, its officers would have to be morons to risk collapsing the lake.  This isn't like strip mining, where once you have destroyed a mountain you just plant a couple of bushes on top and move over to the next mountain to destroy.  If this mine collapses and drains the lake, the company's livelihood is gone.  The employees are gone.  The jobs are gone.  The only thing not gone is lawyers.  Lawyers are never gone.

One might argue that while we all have a great deal to lose if such a disaster should happen, Cargill has everything to lose.  So it stands to reason they would be careful before digging tunnels 2,300 feet below anything, let alone a lake.  After the press conference the mine manager pointed out that in addition to their own geologists, at least three independent geologists, including one chosen by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) analyses and reports on mine stability every year.

Nevertheless, scientists can be wrong, and so can I.  I am only assuming they wouldn't be that dumb.  And, let's face it, scientists can be wrong together.  Look at the thalidomide disaster -- doctors viewed it as a sleeping pill mild enough that pregnant women could safely take it.  It was widely prescribed, and the horrifying results were countless deformed babies and immeasurable heartache in families who had been confidently told by their doctors they were doing the right thing.  So for the sake of argument, let's generously say that at the moment there are two trains of thought and it is not clear which is right.  What should that mean to an elected official?

But science is irrelevant to the question of representing constituents -- certainly not irrelevant to issues they raise, but not relevant to how one represents.  In our political world it is pretty much impossible for groups of people to not disagree.  When you represent all those people do you act after listening to only one side of the story or do you ask the other side, presumably also voters and taxpayers even if you don't agree with them, what their point of view is before deciding to take an action that could have far-reaching consequences?

I am far from being the Mike Wallace of the Lansing Star family.  When I ask difficult questions I view them as giving someone an opportunity to tell their side of the story, answering difficult questions as best they can in their own words.  I don't try to trip them up, and I always feel a little bad when they trip themselves.  I also feel a little good when they open my eyes to a different way of looking at something that I may not have thought about myself.

I once asked a town supervisor about an accusation that he was benefiting from his town buying gravel and renting equipment from  companies he owned.  Others told me that the Town was actually getting the best deal by dealing with his companies, but there was certainly, at least, the appearance of a conflict of interest.  Sure, I told him I wanted the scoop, but then I argued that going on the record would give him a chance to explain the situation in his own words.  He agreed to go on the record.  The resulting article was later cited in a State Comptroller's investigation as proof he had not been trying to hide the transactions, and this transparency helped him.  Yes, the report said the transactions should have been stopped when he was elected, and, in fact, they were once people started grumbling about them.  But he was exonerated from the charge that he had underhandedly tried to benefit from his position, since he had spoken openly on the record.

(I was sad that they didn't name The Lansing Star in that report.  It would have been fun to be explicitly named in a Comptroller's report in a positive context like that.  Yeah, yeah, I know, if that's my idea of fun I really need to get a life!  i still think it would have been cool.)

Whether or not I agreed with that supervisor's policies I had great respect for his willingness to address hard questions.  That was in stark contrast to one of the speakers at last week's press conference (not Assemblywoman Lifton) who, clearly frustrated with challenging questions, complained "This is our press conference!" as if press conferences were supposed to be free PR controlled entirely by the news-maker.  Viewing questions as an attack, rather than an opportunity -- even if they are an attack -- smacks of insecurity in one's point of view.  That person also claimed to be part of a coalition, but wouldn't say how many people were in it.  'Coalition' usually means a bunch of like-minded people.  The more people, the more stature it has.  Refusing to provide a number said, 'nope, not a coalition', hiding something.

I suppose that can be forgiven, because he is an advocate, not a representative.  Advocates have causes.  Representatives have constituents.  Listening to a recording of last week's press conference I payed close attention to answers given to the difficult questions.  How many constituents brought this concern to the Assemblywoman?  Around 20.  She would not name them (rightly - constituents should be able to tell their representatives things without doing so publicly.  If they couldn't nobody would talk to representatives.  That would be very bad.  But 20 out of how many, total?).  Were any of them Lansing representatives or government officials.  Likewise, she wouldn't say, though she said some were from Lansing people.  As an aside, County Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) was asked not to ask questions at the press conference, that only the press should do so.  Did she reach out to Cargill?  No, but she would be happy to meet with officials from the company in the future.

Why didn't she do that before implementing her initiative to halt mining beneath the lake?  Such a meeting may not have led to a different outcome, but it may have, so why not take the initiative?  It's not like Cargill is some loony on the fringes of Tompkins County thought.  You'd think their input would inform her actions.  Saying she'd be willing to meet with them -- which is not the same as saying she will -- a couple of minutes after announcing she was fighting to change their whole business strategy looks a lot like 'too little too late'.

Information gathering before making important decisions is supposed to be a good thing, and just gathering it from people you agree with doesn't make for the best decisions.  Even putting aside the disdain shown to the company and the state department responsible for oversight of the mine, how are two hundred employees and a company that has demonstrated again and again that it cares for the community it is part of, not to mention the local economy and the lake, not important enough to consult before making this decision?  And how are voters and taxpayers you may not agree with not constituents?

Sure, big companies aren't trustworthy.  That is accepted fact these days.  I must say, however, that I haven't seen another company, big or small, that has spent so much time and effort on supporting its community and trying to do the right thing.  When the mine was closed due to a mine shaft elevator malfunction last year, employees were paid their full wages and benefits the entire time the mine was closed.  I have spoken to a number of employees who share great pride in the company's safety protocols.  Not to say the company is perfect. 

I have been repeatedly told by elected officials at every level that they only hear from constituents when they are angry or worked up about something.  Most of them have developed a healthy sense of balance, and quite a few make a point of studying all sides of whatever issue before making a decision that often may be against the wishes of the loudest group.  I like it when they say they researched.  I like it better when they are willing to say what the research was.  Listening to one side and not even trying to learn first hand what the other has to say seems a bit... well... one sided.

It also weakens her case by making her initiative appear to be more political than scientific or out of genuine concern for the environment.  Representing all constituents doesn't mean agreeing with them.  Lucky thing, because that would be impossible.  It should mean listening to all of them.  While it is impossible to reach out to every single person in your district, how hard would it have been to pick up the phone, and share this concern with someone at Cargill?  And give them a chance to answer the difficult questions?