At Whitewater’s Planning Commission: ‘Have you heard any rumors about..?”

There’s a brief discussion about a rumor that a new convenience store might come to small-town Whitewater that illustrates not only the problem of rumors, but others’ unwillingness to point out the problem of rumors. It’s the latter problem that is, in fact, the more serious one for Whitewater.

First, I’ve transcribed the exchange from the video segment above. (The full 12.12.16 meeting of Whitewater’s Planning Commission is online at https://vimeo.com/195844505.) Here’s the discussion:

Commissioner: Chris, have you heard any rumors about Kwik Trip?

Neighborhood Services Director: I, I have not heard anything about Kwik Trip.

Commissioner: ‘Cause I have.

Neighborhood Services Director: Well…

Commissioner: I heard somebody that works for Kwik Trip, they work in, like a big Kwik Trip, and they said that Kwik Trip, it has been approved to come to Whitewater, but not ‘til nineteen, ‘til twenty-nineteen or twenty-twenty.

Neighborhood Services Director: I generally don’t get involved unless…

Commissioner [interrupting, over-talking]: I’m just sayin’…

Neighborhood Services Director: No, I’m letting you know [unintelligible] I generally really don’t get involved until they’re they’re coming in for drawings, like that’s when they contact me because otherwise they’re contacting somebody like Pat [Cannon, contracted Community Development Authority director] so…

Commissioner: I understand they said they have approved it, it just needs to come later. It’d be nice.

Neighborhood Services Director: Yeah, it’d be lovely.

One can guess the problem the commissioner’s remarks make: they’re not just a rumor, but a rumor so light and trivial one might attach string and a tail to it and fly it on a breezy day. It’s that somebody heard that someone who works for… It’s undependable as offered. Relying on something like this would be relying on the unreliable.

There’s a second problem, though, that’s more important than a single commissioner’s over-credulous view of information. The more important problem is that no one bothers to state, clearly and on the record, the difference between substance and baseless speculation.

(It’s not enough to address this difference afterward, off camera; a firm commitment to sound thinking and credible evidence is a declaration to be made then and there, in opposition and correction to a shoddy case. Good reasoning need not – indeed must not – hide timidly in the shadows while rumor takes the center stage.)

There’s also a sign from this exchange that turning over more of the city’s meetings to the direction of common council members (however well-intentioned) will not work. It was, after all, a common council member who ran this meeting, and he made no effort to argue publicly for solid standards of evidence, and indeed made no response at all. There’s no point in having council members chair all meetings if, as in this case, most of them wouldn’t contribute where a contribution would be usefully instructive. (The Neighborhood Services Director does respond by explaining how a proper process runs, but she can’t be expected as an appointed employee to handle all of this.  The sensible course would have been for other commissioners to address the underlying lack of credible information.)

Rumor ruins policy, in small towns as well as large; the damage is worse when others (especially those elected to office) shirk from the obligation to contend for a better practice.