Interest groups promote interests (updated)

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The Chronicle‘s Rad Sallee today wrote about his field trip to look at freight train operations with the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.

This blurb describing the group (the third graf) caught my eye:

Self-described as an “all-volunteer grassroots transportation advocacy organization,” the group has worked to give residents a stronger voice in the planning of major projects that affect their neighborhoods.

The first clause in that paragraph seems fair enough. How groups describe themselves is, in some ways, preferable to journalists actually trying to put labels on them. The problem is in the second clause, which is Sallee’s description of the group, and which really seems to downplay (nay, omit) the group’s advocacy on transportation issues.

Far from being a group that simply fosters public debate and attempts to empower neighborhoods on transportation issues, the CTC frequently takes stands on issues. Most notably, members of the group have long argued for a specific rail alignment on Richmond, even as they publicly said they merely wanted all options on the table. Interestingly, even as the group was talking about “all options,” key members of the group were corresponding with METRO on how best to promote the Richmond alignment. Since quite a few people who actually live/work along Richmond oppose that alignment, it’s not really accurate to suggest that the group is giving those residents a stronger voice in this instance. Rather, the group is arguing for its preferred position.

This is not to suggest there’s anything wrong with that. Interest-group pluralism depends upon informed groups putting their views out into the marketplace of ideas for debate, and the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition is an interest group that certainly adds an intelligent voice to the local conversation. But it does take stands on transportation issues (rather than simply empowering neighborhood residents or promoting discussion), a point that did not seem adequately conveyed by Sallee’s column.

To his credit, Sallee did respond to the discussion on the article with a comment on my message page, and said he didn’t mean to suggest that CTC doesn’t take positions on issues.

UPDATE (08-01-2007): Lo and behold, here is the most recent example of the CTC empowering neighborhoods instead of promoting an agenda, as Rad Sallee would have it. A more objective view, of course, is that the formulation should be reversed.

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