By John Darrah
A carefully crafted campaign against the Critical Areas Ordinance during 2011-2012 resulted in the defeat of two County Council members in the 2012 fall election. The campaign was so quiet and so well executed that the election results were generally greeted as a surprise.
This examination of the campaign is limited to what appeared in the Journal of the San Juan Islands because of its large circulation, the large bloc of voters covered, and the fact that most voters receive their information about the ordinance from the media rather than attending council and planning commission meetings. Other activities of the campaign, including what may have appeared in other islands’ media, are not considered here.
The campaign against the CAO appears to have started with a call to action on Feb. 23, 2011, but began in earnest in September and continued on to the election in 2012. It consisted of a flurry of ads authored by the Common Sense Alliance, the first in February 2011 and the last in April 2012, and many well written letters and opinion pieces that continued for over a year. There is no direct tie between the ads and the letters but the messages are essentially the same.
Before looking at the facts, it is helpful to consider how people opposed to the CAO might go about defeating it. After all, these islands count orca and salmon and their food chain as very important and the CAO aims at reducing human sourced pollution that affects them.
If the "Antis" were to consult an advertising or political guru, they would be told at least three things: 1) define the issue in your favor; 2) make yourselves out to be the good guys; and 3) paint the opposition as the bad guys. Let’s see how well they did.
If you were to go over past issues of the Journal, this is what you would find: The letters and opinion pieces against the CAO began on Sept. 7, 2011 and continued through Oct. 31, 2012. Including an outlier on March 30, 2011 immediately following the first ad, they number 58.
Some were calm and reasoned; some were emotional or angry. The one thing common to all these letters is that not one mentions forage fish, salmon, orcas, birds or any species that might be affected by pollution. On the other hand, almost all use bold negatives to describe the proposed CAO, including “incomprehensible,” “overreaching,” “harsh,“ “vague,” “out of balance,” “burdensome,” and “Trojan horse.”
Many letters touched on the possible economic impact: it hurts owners, builders and jobs; it lowers property values and makes it hard to get bank loans. Some compared it to regulations on Nantucket, where now only rich people can live.
A recurring theme was that there was no evidence that a change was needed in the CAO: our current law has been serving us well for years and there is no showing that it is not doing its job.
“Best available science” is the state standard to guide regulations, and the council’s stance was attacked as “not balanced,” “abracadabra,” and “our science is better than yours.”
Finally, the pro-CAO crowd was roundly condemned: They were labeled “dishonest” and “extreme environmentalists.” The Friends of the San Juans was given a drubbing as “misleading,” “intellectual,” a ”small group of environmentalists,” ”activist bullying,” and a ”gang of zealots.” The County Council was described as captured by highly paid consultants and as not listening to the public outcry. The Pros were seen as spending millions in their effort. They pushed the “most restrictive, anti-human laws,” “the worst assault on individual liberty in the county’s history.”
A review of the Journal regarding messages in favor of the CAO reveals quite a different picture. Of 90 letters or opinion pieces written, 32 were pro as opposed to 58 anti – 36 percent to 64 percent.
Those expressing approval described the regulations as “carefully drawn,” “preserving beautiful places” and “needing citizen support.” One called for “extreme protection” and several praised county staff or the Friends for their work. (Both the Pros and the Antis spent much time answering the others’ arguments about buffers, grandfathering, mitigation, setbacks, non-conforming uses and the like.)
Four pro letters mentioned the protection of critters but most simply responded to the latest anti arguments. With regard to science, beside the protection of fish and endangered species, one talked of the pollution of the commons; another said the fight was “between scientists and realtors and developers.” Real estate value was thought to be enhanced by a strict CAO and it was noted that buffers protect you from your uphill neighbor.
Finally as to labeling the Antis, only four spoke out: 1) “vocal minority,” 2) “alarmist,” 3) “providing misinformation” and 4) “right wing interest groups.” Another protested about the Antis’ use of a snake to depict county government.
Moving to the advertisements, we find the first on Feb. 23, 2011 by the Citizen’s Alliance for Property Rights. (Our count of letters and opinion pieces begins at this time although we keep them separate from the ads). The other ads are on Sept. 28, Oct. 12, and Nov. 2, 2011, and then five in a row ,from March 7 to April 4, 2012. All are authored by the Common Sense Alliance.
The first ad establishes a government-and-special-interests-against-us theme and then gives notice of a meeting to plan a response. The Nov. 2, 2011 ad also gives notice of a meeting in which lawyers would discuss the CAO and property rights. All other ads display a negative message about the CAO and its process with the help of graphics.
On Sept. 28, 2011 a snake is squeezing an islander by means of the new CAO. On Oct. 12, 2011 a citizen notes the load of "B.S." a scientist has in his buckets which the scientist insists is BAS (best available science.) In the first two weeks in March 2012, two ads depict Dorothy and her friends in the land of Oz bewildered by what has been created by the CAO. In the last two weeks of March, the graphics portray a baseball player at the mercy of an umpire who has changed the rules, illustrating how the Department of Ecology has re-written the rules against property owners. The first two weeks in April 2012 have a distraught former property owner on a raft, adrift on a sea of regulations and the message is that the San Juans are “off limits to humans.”
Advertisements on the pro side are only two: Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2011, placed by Friends of the San Juans. Both briefly ask and answer questions about the proposed new CAO provisions and alert readers to upcoming county meetings.
A comparison of the pro and anti ads is striking. In size, the two Friends ads total 27 column inches whereas the 12 ads by CAPR/Common Sense Alliance cover 220 column inches. At the going rate of $14.50 per column inch, the Friends spent about $390 and the Antis spent about $3,200.
In content the pro ads were matter-of-fact, resembling the mild tone of language to be found in a school textbook. The anti ads were mostly urgent with the graphics backing up the message of alarm or unfairness.
That in a nutshell is what you would find if you went back through past issues of the Journal. What can we make of it?
The advertisements tell us that at the outset the anti-CAO folks changed their identification from CAPR (Citizen Alliance for Property Rights) to Common Sense Alliance, a change that was more likely to make them appear to be the good guys. The ads carried a consistent and strident message - essentially the same as the CAO letters. For readers who wouldn’t remember the words, the graphics (the snake, the scientist with his bucket of BS, the bewildered characters from Oz, and the tormented property owner adrift on a sea of regulations) drove home the message.
The parallel letter barrage including opinion pieces from September 2011 to October 2012 starting and ending abruptly was a fairly disciplined effort to portray both the CAO and its supporters as bad. They stayed on message. No one, not a single letter, mentioned the wildlife that the CAO purports to protect, and the science was ridiculed as bad science or not applicable to the islands.
The ads, the letters and the opinion pieces all followed the political campaign advice we mentioned earlier. They labeled themselves as having “common sense” in contrast to the pro-CAO crowd who were labeled extreme or worse. By defining the issue as property rights and property values, they gave center stage to lawyers and realtors as opposed to scientists who would have nothing to say. While science may have been the issue before the county council, the “worst assault on individual liberty” was the issue in the court of public opinion.
The pro-CAO response to this campaign can only be seen as feeble from a political issue point of view and without organization. Individual letters argued with points made by the Antis but there was no evident agenda or consistency to them. There was no attempt to redefine the issue or to paint the Antis as the bad guys.
In short, the Antis had almost double the participation, stayed on message and established the CAO as a very bad regulation. In contrast, the Pros hadn’t a clue.
Whether the backers of this campaign had in mind simply putting pressure on the county council or whether they saw it as a springboard for an election campaign, the timing of the CAO process allowed two candidates to run successfully against two incumbents, using the CAO issue as a weapon. Exit polls by a skilled pollster could have calibrated the extent of the campaign’s effect but the narrow margin by which two newcomers beat two seasoned incumbents should indicate it was a big factor.
The voter trying to make sense of the rhetoric might see two possibilities. Either the council, spurred on by radical environmentalists, labored mightily to construct an ordinance that was confusing, unnecessary and costly to the landowner, or the realtors/developers and political ideologues wanted to keep regulations and development costs to a minimum. Two articles in the Journal (June 8 and August 22, 2011) might help resolve the voter’s quandary.
In them the basic issues are laid out and then-councilman Richard Fralick is quoted, “large, same-size ‘dumb buffers’ around all critical areas would be easy for the county to administer.” The articles synthesize the council’s intent in this regard as “to avoid following a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach in favor of developing a regimen of site specific and ‘tailored’ buffers and setbacks that would apply to existing and future development.” Thus, if the CAO seems complicated, it’s largely because the Council wanted the owners to have more options building on their land. The more detailed options might indeed increase costs for a developer or someone wanting to turn a house into a mega-mansion, but they would not likely affect a homeowner’s sale of property or the addition of a deck or garden.
All of the campaign and the response to it are quintessential examples of American free speech. If one objects to the tactics or arguments of one side or the other, one need merely look to our past national or state elections to observe far worse.
Perhaps this campaign foretells the future of political discourse in the San Juans. Perhaps even local candidates and issues will soon require large advertising budgets and the guidance of expensive political consultants. If there is a way to avoid this, it would require a potent neutral force that provides a venue for debate that renders money or stealthy campaigns impotent.
Perhaps we should think about how islanders want to talk to each other about important issues.
— Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of the opinion piece above by John Darrah, a part-time resident of San Juan Island and retired King County superior court judge — conforming to Journal's policy for word limits on guest columns, was published in the April 3 of the Journal.