Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: Governing by polling



How do you confront a problem that many of our elected officials have termed a “public health crisis” and, in an attempt to find a solution, have moved into separate camps to throw rhetorical rocks at one another?

One easy way is to poll the public. This helps some decision makers by allowing them to hold up a finger to discover which way the wind of public opinion is blowing. If statistics gathered by the poll agree with an official’s point of view, he or she can then proclaim in debate, “But 77 percent of the people ….”

If the statistics refute an official’s point of view, it’s just as easy to ridicule the poll, noting that it was worded to favor one position over another, and if that doesn’t work, trot out the old warhorse of “lies, damn lies and statistics.”

Legislating is an art — often a dark one — as much as a science, and legislating by polls or referenda is often a cynical but effective way to manipulate colleagues toward forming a consensus. For example, savvy legislators know that on any referendum that asks a “yes” or “no” vote, it’s always best to have your point of view placed before the voters as the affirmative choice, rather than ask voters to cast a “no” vote.

Wised-up officials know that many citizens aren’t up to speed on most issues, and an uninformed constituency almost always votes “yes” on anything because just by being in the voting booth, citizens feel optimistic, and don’t want negativity to intrude on their experience of doing a civic duty.

The Deer & Tick survey, battled in committee and before the Town Board, is seeking opinions on the effectiveness and safety of 4-poster units — feeding stands that brush deer with a tickicide, permethrin — or if culling the herd is essential, or whether a serious examination of other methods, such as birth control or sterilization of does, might prove effective and practical in controlling the growth of the deer population.

It also asks residents if they’ve been bitten by ticks, contracted a tick-borne illness or had a vehicle accident involving a deer. All useful information, but by no means the only information to be used to pass legislation or allot public funds.

The best elected officials listen carefully during a debate, work diligently to gather research and weigh their constituents’ voices as part of an equation that will add up to forming a point of view.

Then they do what they were elected to do — lead, and not follow political expediency or the influence of outside pressure groups, inside political directives, or the results of polls.