Noise mediation process flawed from start

My turn

Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2000

The editorial, "A common sense ruling," in Sunday's Empire was excellent and right on the mark. The noise mediation process has been terribly flawed from the start. Lois Schwennesen, the Forest Service-selected mediator from Seattle's Triangle Associates, still has a lot to learn about how a mediator should conduct meetings of this nature. I have attended several mediation exercises, and the role of the mediator is to keep the participants on task, maintain rules of order, and bring the parties together. The mediator is not there to drive the process toward a desired outcome, to discredit any of the participants, nor to drive the parties apart. An impartial and professional mediator serves to promote positive dialog in order to find common ground from which solutions are then derived.

Usually, the participants of the process choose the mediator. In this case, the Forest Service chose Ms. Schwennesen, and she then chose the participants. Ms. Schwennesen was chosen despite the fact that she is an outsider with no prior knowledge of the complexity of the local noise problem in Juneau. She proved to be a disruptive force from the outset, unnecessarily canceling meetings at the drop of a hat, and severely limiting the role, voice, and ear of the public. To no one's surprise, the panel was heavily weighted with pro-flight business interests and sorely under-represented by the caucuses representing sectors of the concerned public. Where is a seat representing neighborhood associations? Where is a seat representing business interests who are negatively impacted by flight-seeing noise?

Unfortunately, this noise mediation effort now appears on the verge of failing. If the participants walk away from the table, we all lose. The citizens of Juneau are back to square one with more time wasted, more money spent and no solutions to flightseeing noise in sight. It is important to remember that the Forest Service and the CBJ lavishly funded this exercise. The mediator will blame this failure on the recent ruling by retired Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, who ruled in favor of open meetings. Don't be fooled by this ruse. The pro-flightseeing interests have a lot to lose by this process going forward and everything to gain by stopping now. Some were clearly looking for an out from the start, and this ruling (and Peace and Quiet) will now be their scapegoat of convenience.

There are two important points that should be considered before allowing the mediation efforts to be abandoned: First, under Alaska statutes, the meetings must be open and as a result the mediator's order prohibiting taping was clearly illegal. This should never have been an issue in the first place. Second, when it comes to sensitive financial information that would prejudice a business' competitive position, meetings that are subject to open meeting rules may hold closed sessions to keep this information out of the public discourse. To even suggest that the pro-flight interests would disclose any proprietary information in front of the participants, whether in private or public, is ludicrous.

Every concerned citizen in this community should contact members of the assembly and insist that the mediation effort go forward. The next stage of the process should continue with a skilled, professional and truly neutral mediator familiar with Alaska law. Each of us should support a fair and open process that finds common ground and solutions that benefit all. Otherwise, our town will grow increasingly polarized, with the CBJ and federal agencies making decisions that affect our welfare behind closed doors.

Everett Hinkley is a federal employee who lives in Juneau.

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