Few things strike as much fear into the hearts of landfill developers as the words “public referendum.” The notion that their carefully designed, expertly sited project might be subject to the whims of an unpredictable electorate is a frightening one, and for good reason. Newspapers are full of stories of waste facilities that received all the proper state-level permits, only to be tripped up at the ballot box by an effective NIMBY campaign.
While referendums are in many ways an admirable expression of direct democracy, they also are more vulnerable to demagoguery, prejudice and misinformation. Often, voters don’t need to hear anything past the word “landfill ” — as soon as that becomes the main story, they can’t check the “NO” box fast enough. And even among voters willing to consider your project, knowledge gaps are frequently filled in by a hostile NIMBY crowd or spurious “facts” dredged up in some obscure corner of the internet.
For this reason, project developers usually prefer to be subject to a vote of an elected body, like a county commission or regional council. Although elected officials are not immune to misconceptions about the waste industry, they’re more likely to be able to rise above them and consider your project on the merits. These decision-makers will usually take the time to read over your proposal and listen to the testimony of engineers and experts, a step the average voter usually skips. Additionally, elected officeholders have a responsibility to balance the local budget and figure out a waste disposal solution for their district; these duties force them to weigh a proposal on its technical merits as well as its popularity.
Voters in Le Sueur, Minn., are putting this theory into practice. A longrunning controversial plan to develop a $30 million biofuels plant (which would convert agricultural waste into methane, then burn it for energy) in the area has won the cautious support of the mayor and at least some members of the city council. As a result, opponents have begun collecting enough signatures to subject the plan to a referendum vote, which could be held as early as this spring. Le Sueur is a small community of about 4,000 residents, which puts Avant Energy, the firm seeking to operate the proposed plant, in a difficult situation.
This is because when it comes to referendums, the size of the vote matters. All elections, like all waste projects, are unique, but in general largescale referendums (ones with a wider jurisdiction and more voters) are more beneficial for projects than smaller ones, for two reasons.
First, a small referendum empowers a passionate minority to have a disproportionate impact. Usually, nothing describes a NIMBY crowd better than “passionate minority,” and their energy and numbers can prove decisive when not outweighed by a large vote pool. In other words, as the scale of the referendum shrinks, your project’s dedicated opponents become a larger slice of the electorate. As it expands, those who stand to benefit from lower costs and better service become a controlling segment of the vote.
The second difficulty in small-scale referendums is that they are harder to influence through campaigns. A small election typically has a greater proportion of folks who have made up their mind and cannot be persuaded one way or the other. They heard about the issue from their neighbor or their friend, and they already know how they’ll vote. On the other hand, a large election will be dominated by “low-information” voters who can be influenced by a well-run grassroots campaign. Radio and newspaper ads, direct mail, phone contacts and door-to-door canvassing can change the state of play in these large races, and they’re typically available to firms with the financial resources to use them. Most NIMBY groups can’t afford these electioneering expenses.
No project developer wants to be held up to a vote. But public referendums are winnable for players in the waste industry. You just need to be smart about picking your battles, and remember that whether it’s referendums or landfills, the bigger, the better.
Darden H. Copeland is managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state & local affairs, land-use and development, and grassroots lobbying.
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