The Advertiser fills its Sunday editorial space with a call on the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce to take a stand on Lafayette’s Fiber to the Home project.
The Advertiser refers to two chamber position papers (whose long incubation in committee were often cited as evidence that the chamber was still studying the issue) as critical in the decision the chamber must make now. The daily points out that taken together, the Broadband Position Statement (MS Word document, LPF html) and the Public vs Private Sector Investment (PDF, LPF html) statement constitute all the rational basis needed to make a stand in favor of the project. The Public vs. Private statement was issued January 31st after long delay and was the last “study” for which chamber leadership had been said to waiting. The newspaper notes the thrust of the two position papers:
In a nutshell, the chamber recognizes the immense value of a major broadband initiative, and believes that, when the private sector is unable or unwilling to undertake an initiative of community value, government pursuit of the initiative is reasonable.
That seems to come very close to an endorsement of the LUS project. If so, it should be formally and publicly acknowledged.
Absolutely. And long overdue, in the judgment of Lafayette Pro Fiber.
The paper rests its case for action largely on preserving the leadership role of the chamber and on the hope that its voice will provide an “informed, independent voice.” As welcome as the chamber’s endorsement would be, neither of these goals can any longer be realized. The chamber has already forfeited its leadership role in helping the community come to an informed decision and its extended period of inaction was, in all honesty, based on the kind of “good ole boy” relationships that reveal the chamber as simply one interest group among many. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being an interest group—and I will propose that it has a lot of value for the community—but it is no longer credible to present the chamber as a disinterested group of “leaders” whose “study” has revealed an objective best path for Lafayette citizens. The case for an endorsement must be made on other, more credible grounds if it is to lead to action useful to the chamber’s membership and the community to which they belong.
The Advertiser refers to such issues only obliquely:
The Chamber leadership may believe that its silence insulates it from critics. But we would suggest that an institution’s silence is a breeding ground for rumor and innuendo that can cause great damage, whether substantiated or not. For purely selfish reasons, the Chamber should speak.
That is a not-so-subtle warning to the chamber that the real reasons for its inaction are widely known, and that people inside and outside the organization are coming to the conclusion that on this issue, the organization is not to be trusted. And this distrust threatens to spread to other projects for which the chamber could still exercise a leadership role in opinion-making, such as educational budgeting and small class size. What is widely known is that a web of personal relationships exercised in part through setting up uncoordinated study committees and keeping the issues in committee long past any rational moment kept the chamber under Gary McGoffin from making a decision about whether or not cheap, ubiquitous, advanced, true broadband would benefit the businesses of Lafayette and its people. With the ascension of Tyron Picard of Acadian Ambulance to the chair, many felt that hope of a chamber endorsement was lost because of the close personal relationship of Acadiana Ambulance’s Richard Zuschlag with BellSouth executives, his alliance with BellSouth over 911 technologies, and his rumored desire for membership on the BellSouth board of directors. This relationship was fairly openly expressed during the embarrassing debacle of the chamber’s “broadband debate,” which ended in an insulting conference call and the withdrawal of Cox and BellSouth after they failed to force a change of the ground rules for the event which would further favor them. LUS ended up making its presentation to the media alone and going home.
Beyond the personally political is the ideological. Businessmen, and the chamber is an organization of businessmen, have come to think of themselves as conservatives and some conservatives have somehow come to the conclusion that all corporations, without exception, are to be favored in any conflict between the interests of the people and the profit-taking potentials of corporations, even government-supported monopolies. This is not truly conservative — most of the disturbing changes in our culture, and the erosion of local communities, are directly attributable to large corporations’ finding it profitable to ignore local values and squeeze out local infrastructure. But the fact remains that an unreflective ideology of hostility to even locally-elected, chamber-supported leadership has distorted the chamber’s view.
What is needed in the face of all this is not for the chamber to take up some disinterested leadership role which it, in fact, cannot honestly play. Instead, it should honestly acknowledge its actual position as an organization of largely conservative business leaders and leverage that indisputable fact for the benefit of its membership and the community.
The chamber should forthrightly endorse the Fiber For the Future proposal because it believes that it will benefit its present membership by bringing cheap and huge bandwidth to its affiliates in a moment when telecommunications is an increasing and increasingly important slice of every business’s budget. It should clearly and honestly deal with the bare fact that the interests of local businesses and businesspeople are not same as the interests of large monopoly corporations and their executives, and that confusing the two is a form of deception.
The chamber could then credibly join the community in declaring that it also has an interest in Lafayette’s future unfettered development through clean, tax-producing enterprises. This would be a new style of development in which we decide that we will invest in ourselves and consider what is best for Lafayette without depending on the hope that outside groups and corporations can be enticed to bring some investment to Lafayette in return for sacrificing local values such as school revenues that result in higher relative taxes for our “merely” local businesses. Big broadband is the waterway/railroad/interstate of our day. Lafayette’s existence and success has depended upon commercial access to one of these since it was named Vermillionville after our local waterway, and pointing out to the people of our community that the conduits of trade are essential to our future development is a point the chamber is in a unique position to make credibly—if it is willing to honestly own its role as an organization of businesspeople.
As Lafayette heads into an ugly fight where the incumbents will continue to pursue a path of promoting fear, uncertainty, and doubt (the preferred strategy of incumbents with no real argument), what the people of Lafayette most need is a community that stands up together and pushes back against outside money and influence. It is no longer possible to believe that any fight here will be a simple reasoned debate on the value of the proposition for the people of Lafayette. That hope died as long ago as the failed broadband debate, if it ever really existed.
The chamber can be a central and extremely important lynchpin in that coalition, one whose presence makes it impossible to argue that the plans for a fiber optic network to serve the community are somehow anti-business. Probably the most understandable, if not the wisest, reason given for chamber inaction was that it sought to avoid conflict. With other institutions that are on the verge of an open endorsement (such as the local Republican party) joining in the fray on the side of Lafayette, a grand alliance of Lafayette institutions will be possible. Such an alliance would help neutralize the dishonest claims that BellSouth and Cox are protecting “free enterprise” and “conservative values.” And that alone would go a long way toward making any conflict more honest—which is the best the chamber can hope to achieve if it is motivated by lowering the level of divisive conflict we are likely to face.
The time for us all to stand up is now. And the chamber can take a lead in that project.
Update: The original format of the two supporting documents from the chamber are provided in formats that may not be immediately accessible to all. I have provided standard web page (html formatted) versions of both. (See the “LPF html” links above.)