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Government for the people

September 20, 2012

In this polarized society, in which the population seems to be pretty much evenly divided on practically every issue from the federal to the local level, it is immensely surprising to get a result as lopsided as that in the recent survey on natural gas drilling sent out in the Town of Callicoon. About two thirds of the respondents said they were opposed to drilling and fracking, about one third in favor. The margin is big enough that it is hard to ignore regardless of any imperfections in method with which the process might be charged. The fact that six or seven surveys were dropped into a “re-use” box at the post office, for instance, might have skewed a few votes, but could not possibly have accounted for the entire margin. Nor can the results be disparaged on account of the size of the sample. The number of surveys returned was 1,042, comparing quite favorably with the number of people who voted in the last election, which was about 1,200.

The results are important for a couple of reasons, one directly related to the Town of Callicoon, the other related to other local townships. Within Callicoon, the results mean that the government of the town has decided to take a tack clearly contrary to the wishes of the constituency it was elected to represent. What happened to “government for the people?” More broadly, the incident also refutes an argument that has been made not only in the Town of Callicoon, but in neighboring towns, whenever opponents of drilling request that some kind of referendum or poll be arranged: that the last elections themselves constituted a poll on natural gas drilling.

No, they obviously did not. And town officials who continue to refuse to listen to, or to try to learn more about, the actual wishes of their townspeople on a specific issue on which there is an outcry like this one, are flying in the face of democratic principle.

It is true that there were candidates running in the last election who made opposition to gas drilling central to their platform, and also that those candidates were defeated (although, in the Town of Delaware, challenger Stephan Lundgren wasn’t all that far off in the race for supervisor). But elections are decided on a wide range of factors, not just a single issue—and in the Town of Callicoon, at least, clearly not only on gas drilling.