Last week a crowd of impassioned citizens opposed to Indian River County’s participation in a seven-county regional planning effort filled the Commission chambers, spoke their minds, applauded each other, and had their way.
As one person after another derided a regional approach to forward thinking, one could not help but wonder if the crowd packed into the Commission chamber was representative of the community, or was just an engaged and impassioned vocal minority.
Either because they are not given to tracking the emergence and progression of conspiracy theories about the coming of one-world government, or because they have jobs and pressing daily responsibilities, Indian River County’s silent majority went unrepresented, with the exception of one voice, that of Commissioner Peter O’Bryan.
What kind of representative democracy do we have when elected officials cave to the will of a vocal minority that has the time to incubate and foster conspiracy theories about how blue-helmeted United Nations troops will someday descend upon Indian River County, rounding up all the residents living on the barrier island, seizing the keys to their cars, marching them across the bridges, and then forcing them to move into tenement housing to be built in the downtown area near what will some day be a giant Amtrak station.
There was a day when on either side of the political spectrum extremist fringe groups flanked centrists, who made up the majority. Not any more.
Seismic shifts in the political landscape have altered the fault lines. Today moderates have become marginalized.
Locally, these changes in political alignments can be seen in the increasing influence of the Indian River Tea Party and the Indian River Taxpayers Association, two groups that appear to be so cross-pollinated as to be indistinguishable in their mission and objectives.
Basically, they fervently seek to reduce the level of government services to the irreducible. Passion and conviction don’t necessarily translate into sound reasoning any more than might makes right. In fact, zeal without wisdom and fervor without moderation are like lighting without lightning rods. They can blow fuses and burn the house down.
After being encouraged for more than a year by the one County Commissioner who, from the beginning has opposed the county’s participation in Seven50, a group of zealots managed to convince themselves Seven50 equates to Agenda 21, which they fear is a sinister plan by the United Nations that will eventually lead to one-world government and the surrender of all the rights and privileges Americans hold dear.
“Get the U.N. out of the U.S. and the U.S. out of the U.N.,” said one opponent to Seven50 during public comment time at last week’s Commission meeting.
Such isolationist thinking proved persuasive, as the Commission voted 4-1 to abandon its seat at the table. In leaving the Seven50 initiative, the County Commission has abrogated its right to participate in and help shape the direction of regional plan that will surely some day have an impact on Indian River County.
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re the meal,” someone said, questioning the wisdom of the Commission’s refusal to participate in regional planning efforts.
The facial expressing and body language of four of the five Commissioners made it clear they were absorbed in the negative energy swirling through the Commission chambers last week. Despite the inevitability of the outcome, Commissioner Peter O’Bryan calmly set out point by point the reasons why he believes it would be best for the county to remain involved in regional planning discussions, at least until there is a plan to critique.
After all, O’Bryan noted, none of the seven counties, 121 municipalities and other organizations such as Indian River State College and Florida Power & Light are committed to sign on to any part of the plan. The county’s only pledge was to remain a participant in a conversation about the future of South Florida.
Opponents of Seven50 say it is an amorphous group made up of nameless, faceless bureaucrats. O’Bryan, though, identified such well-known and respected area leaders as Dr. Edwin Massey, President of Indian River State College. Among Seven50’s other participants is the regional director of Florida Power & Light. In fact, as it turns out, every participant in Seven50 has both a name and a face, and none of them are federal bureaucrats.
Though the County Commission has set a course for Indian River County to circumnavigate the future solo, O’Bryan bravely defended his view and spoke the truth as he sees it. O’Bryan deserves to be commended, for last week he offered a profile in political courage.
In Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote, “The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people – faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscious judgment – faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.”
Observers of local politics suspect the Indian River Taxpayers Association and others will be gunning for O’Bryan if he runs for re-election. In an email addressed to each Commissioner, Paul Tanner, a founder of the local Tea Party wrote, “I do not believe I have ever maintained any specific litmus test regarding my personal support of or opposition to a candidate… this may well be the first.”
Clearly political courage is exercised at a price.