Carolina Journal News Reports

Wake Sustainability Report Plagued by Bad Process, Incomplete Analysis

JLF expert who served on county task force documents group's flaws

Feb. 17th, 2012
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RALEIGH Wake County commissioners should be wary of their environmental sustainability task force's final report. A John Locke Foundation expert who served on the task force says the report relies on a flawed decision-making process, bad assumptions, and incomplete analysis.

He's releasing a 4,000-word critique of the task force's work as county commissioners prepare to address the sustainability report as early as Monday.

"This brief analysis only hints at the systemic problems in the sustainability task force's final report," said Dr. Michael Sanera, JLF Director of Research and Local Government Studies. "To discuss all of its problems in detail would require a much heftier document."

County commissioners need more detailed information before accepting any of the task force's ideas, Sanera said. "It is imperative that commissioners call on qualified experts -- resource economists, not sustainability consultants -- to conduct economic analyses of the task force's recommendations," he said. "This should be done before the county implements any of these ideas."

The 55-member environmental sustainability task force met monthly from January 2010 to June 2011. Appointed by Wake County commissioners, the group focused on issues involving water, solid waste, and energy.

The final document presented to county commissioners does not represent that group's work, Sanera said.

"Task force members neither discussed nor approved the report's introductory section, background sections for the three subject areas, and performance measures that follow each list of recommendations," he explained. "It is dishonest to state on the report's cover that it was 'prepared by' the task force. Without clarifying the large amount of staff input, the report misrepresents 18 months of task force work, misleads Wake County commissioners, and misleads the public as well."

Problems started long before the preparation of the final report, Sanera said. "Task force members were not selected on the basis of scientific or economic expertise," he said. "Instead they represented special interests and governmental interests likely to be affected by the group's recommendations. Nearly all speakers who addressed the task force also represented special interests."

Sanera also raised concerns about the task force's consensus approach to making decisions. "Using this process, proponents of a recommendation are rarely asked to provide supporting economic or scientific data to support their ideas," he said. "Recommendations are assumed to be the consensus of the group unless a task force member objects. Then the objector must explain his reasoning. This is a process that often leads to groupthink."

"A consensus process is popular at all levels of government because it normally creates a politically acceptable outcome, meaning all of the important interest groups agree regardless of the scientific or economic validity of the proposals," Sanera added. "The Wake County process did not rely on environmental science, natural resource economics, or scientific or economic data related to water, energy, or solid waste."

The absence of economics expertise created special problems, Sanera said. "By relying on interest groups instead of qualified resource economists, the task force produced a hodgepodge of conflicting, confusing, and counterproductive recommendations."

An economist could have saved the task force from making basic mistakes involving principles such as efficiency, prices, regulations, and incentives, Sanera said.

"For example, many recommendations that claim to focus on efficiency focus on only one resource, such as energy efficiency," he explained. "But if you waste a lot of labor and capital to make a product more energy-efficient, the overall result is actually inefficient. In the language the task force would understood, the end result is unsustainable."

Recommendations that call for the review of building codes also cause concerns, Sanera said. "Some task force members want to add regulations that would force people to conform to 'environmentally correct' ideology," he said. "That could translate into the county paying double or triple the cost to construct buildings in order to save a small amount on energy. Or it could mean mandates for low-flow showerheads that families do not want."

One factor is notably absent from the task force report, Sanera said. "It is no accident that the task force did not calculate the costs of its recommendations or compare them to other alternatives that might be less costly," he said. "The majority of task force members were not concerned with costs, especially when other people would be made to pay them."

County commissioners need information about costs and benefits before they move forward, Sanera said. "It is only then that they will be able to decide if a task force recommendation would produce economic and environmental benefits for the citizens of Wake County."