"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 6, 2013

Lessons from the Pennrose Affair, Part II

     In my previous post, I offered a depressing Lesson #1 for all those who have fought, or are fighting, the imposition of an inappropriate development in your communities:  It’s Not Over; It Never Is.

Now:   Lesson #2:  A Lawsuit is Worth a Thousand Petitions

     As I observed in my previous post, the Pennrose project in Norristown was “wired.”  Municipal leaders (a majority, at least) and planners were expeditiously removing all obstacles to its final approval.  Then everything came to a sudden halt.  Why?
     At the risk of offending some dear souls in Norristown Nudge, the Pennrose project was not stopped by the petition against it, or by the public pleas of outraged residents.  Municipal Council might have been swayed by this expression of popular opinion had the issue ever actually gotten to it, but I seriously doubt it.   This tactic, exercised alone, had two chances of success:  slim and none.  Many of you in other towns might have your own evidence that this is true.
     Don’t get the wrong idea here.  I hold that there are few rights in a democracy more precious that the ability to petition for redress of grievances.  That right was exercised during the Pennrose Affair, in its modern, digital, form.  For that, I offer kudos all around.
     At this point in my life, I have long ago forgotten how many petitions I have carried, let alone how many I have signed.  I have not kept careful track, but it is entirely possible that not one of them was successful.  Maybe I am just the patron saint of lost causes, but I think there is more to it.
     A petition has two fundamental weaknesses.  First, it is virtually impossible to get an absolute majority of any body politic to sign a particular petition.  You always get far fewer than that, and in this day of urban community apathy the percentage of signatures you get is hugely smaller.  Thus anyone can dispute your claim to be voicing "the will of the people."
     The second weakness is more fundamental, and ultimately, unanswerable.  A body of elected officials may choose to heed your petition, or they may choose not to.   Their job description allows this kind of judgment call, albeit with the attendant electoral risks down the road.  It’s part of our republican form of government (that’s small “r,” by the way), as is the deliberate inclusion of “down the road,” via scheduled elections, to keep the people’s representatives from being removed at the people’s whim.  
     Please understand: I am in NO WAY denigrating the importance of petitions; only suggesting that people should have a realistic understanding of how, where and why petitions are important.  Everyone who initiates or carries one believes in its cause; this naturally leads you to believe that once its obvious rightness is brought to the attention of your leaders, they will recognize the justice of your cause and take remedial action.  When this doesn’t happen, the resulting hurt and anger too often lead to a rejection of further efforts: “They didn’t listen!  They never do!  It’s hopeless!  The game is rigged!”  Been there, done that.
     You should treat a petition, first and foremost, as an organizing tool.  Keep track of who signed; you should not only contact them the next time something similar appears on the horizon, but also keep them informed in the interim.  A series of ad hoc unconnected campaigns that have to repeat the organize-and-build-enthusiasm part each time is a waste of energy and resources that could be better applied to achieving your goal.  Nevertheless, a petition is still a virtual requirement in order to obtain the needed publicity for your cause; the fourth estate (even in digital disguise) always pays attention when the word “petition” is mentioned.

     It is important to understand, however, that the petition opposing Pennrose did not bring the project to a halt; a lawsuit did.  Opponents of the project filed a lawsuit appealing the variances the project had been granted.  That lawsuit is still pending.  The simple existence of the suit, pending though it is, was sufficient.  The lawsuit meant that Pennrose was not in position to "build by right” when a deadline approached, a necessary precondition for construction loans, regardless of their source. 
     That’s the difference between any number of petitions and one lawsuit: confronted by petitions, a representative governmental authority has the right to say yes or no; confronted by a lawsuit, it has no choice but to respond, in the legal arena, not the political one.  In that arena, political skills and connections count for a lot less; the citizen and his government are a lot more equal.
     Unsure about how the lawsuit will turn out?  Worried that you might lose?  Don’t be.  A lawsuit is not about winning or losing; it’s about delay and expense.  You file a lawsuit to inflict both on the other side.  In our legal system, few lawsuits are judged without merit and dismissed.  “Everybody deserves their day in court.”  That day will take some time to arrive, and attorneys charge by the hour.  The goal of a lawsuit is usually to force the other side to the point where it no longer makes financial sense to continue the struggle.  The problem here is that the developers utilize the law on a more or less continuous basis; they have deep pockets and the names of attorneys on speed dial.  Civic organizations do not.  That’s all the more reason to keep your ear to the ground and your people (the ones who signed your previous petition) on standby.  You never now when or where the next one is coming from.


Next time:  Lesson #3, and why Pennrose wasn’t a simple issue.