'Green' is not always black-and-white

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters' Ashland City Council scorecard released Aug. 14 raised questions about the intention and validity of the evaluation.

Three of the city councilors earned perfect scores from the political action committee, but critics say the issues chosen were cherry-picked and oversimplified, without evaluation of the motivation behind the vote. Councilors Kate Jackson and David Chapman were issued failing scores at 40 and 50 percent respectively, and Russ Silbiger earned a 70 percent. Councilors Cate Hartzell, Alice Hardesty and Eric Navickas scored 100 percent.

Rick Bleiweiss, who has followed Council activity since 2006, believes the scorecard was far from nonpartisan.

"I totally support the work of environmental organizations, but I don't support erroneous half truths," he said. "This scorecard obviously was aimed at influencing people to vote for people."

Councilors Russ Silbiger and David Chapman criticized the scorecard for oversimplifying the issues, citing their votes against a city solar project. Neither is against the idea of providing solar options, but both opposed the way it would have been executed.

Councilor Kate Jackson voiced similar concerns in an e-mail to the Tidings, saying she was mystified by the intentions of the scorecard.

"Every member of the city council cares about protecting the environment, but it is naive to think that decisions can be described as merely black and white choices," she said. "However it is intended, this scorecard is divisive. At a time when serious discussions of complex issues are needed, the scorecard makes our job of collaboration and problem-solving harder."

The league is registered as a political action committee, as well as a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organization, with three different boards with overlapping members responsible for various activities of the league, said Mat Marr, Jackson County chapter organizer for the league.

Groups classified as C3s collect tax-deductible donations and are banned from political activity, while C4s give up tax deductions in order to participate in more lobbying activities and may spend funds to support issues. Political action committees, or PACs, may spend money to endorse specific candidates.

Creation of the Ashland scorecard was a nonpartisan C4 activity, Marr said.

"There's nothing in our process that would have allowed us to choose people that we wanted to do better," he said. "The reason that some people did better on the scorecard is because of how they voted, not because of the Oregon League of Conservation Voter's process."

Marr maintains that the process of evaluating votes based solely on whether the councilor voted yes or no is the most objective method of evaluation, not based on motivation as several councilors have suggested.

"When we start looking at motivations, it's inherently not objective anymore," Marr said, adding that he would still like to hear councilors explain the reasoning behind their votes. "It becomes subjective when you start looking at this councilor voted no for the right reasons, and this councilor voted no for the wrong reasons."

The local steering committee created the scorecard following the same steps the statewide league has used to evaluate the Oregon legislature on environmental issues since 1973, a process that state political organizer Katy Daily said has improved legislators' environmental voting records by keeping them accountable.

A subgroup of the all-volunteer steering committee researched every Council vote, providing summaries of 20 to 50 votes with an environmental component to the main committee to choose which votes will appear on the scorecard. They removed the names of councilors, but retained the final vote tally. Once the specific votes were chosen with input from local environmental groups, the results were sent to the state league, where the names of councilors were finally added back in by a staff member.

"Every attempt is made to make sure there is no doctoring of the scores to favor one side or the other," Daily said.

When evaluating the state legislature, the organization tries to choose split votes, reasoning that those represent a tougher decision on the environment than a unanimous outcome. If a vote splits along party lines in the state legislature, however, those evaluating the votes sometimes have an idea of who voted which way, she said.

"To a certain extent it's a lot harder to do when there are only six people on the council," she said.

Critics also questioned why some minor votes were chosen while more obvious choices, such as the model green community Verde Village were left off. Inclusion of that vote would have given Eric Navickas, who earned a perfect score, one negative vote.

Marr said Verde Village and other land use issues were purposely avoided because they was not a clear-cut environmental choice. Instead they included a vote before Navickas took office on the Earth Advantage program that provided density bonuses to high-efficiency developments.

Although it is not a perfect process, steering committee member Thomas Estes said he believed the positive results scorecards have produced elsewhere made the Ashland evaluation worthwhile.

"It is my own personal belief that the scorecard card is not infallible," he said. "It's not perfect, it's not 100 percent right, yet it has been a good exercise for us to do and it has brought a lot of attention onto this subject, and I think that's all been healthy."

Councilor Navickas, who received a top score, said he thought the scorecard overall provided an accurate portrayal of Council votes.

"Once or twice in a candidate's voting record, there might be times when you might vote against your values, but when we're seeing consistent votes against the environment, I think the record speaks for itself."

Former Councilor Alex Amarotico, who scored a 75 percent for the final two years of his work on the Council, said voters should evaluate voting records for themselves.

"It's frustrating to see people (OLCV members) who I know are trying to do a good thing — make it easier for people to make good decisions — oversimplify information to the point where it's a plus or a minus on a scorecard somewhere," he said.

The Council as a whole scored 70 percent, a score that far exceeds most years of the state legislature. When the Oregon Senate reached a 73 percent pro-environment rating in 2007 and the Oregon House of Representatives reached 69 percent, it was declared a banner year, Marr said.

"I hope people don't see 70 percent as a failing grade," he said. "If this was our legislative scorecard, this would be one of the best ones we've ever had."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.

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