Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Public Involvement--More or Less?

While some see an engaged public as an  important component of local governance; others believe that it can go too far becoming an impediment to progress. Fredericksburg has experienced significant public involvement in local government.   From the rezoning of Celebrate Virginia to incentives for Kalahari city residents have actively engaged in the decision- making process.  While the city still faces many challenges, some believe that public involvement has declined.  How should this decline be viewed? How involved should the public be in their local government? And how should, local government respond to the public? 
     
Over the past few weeks I have been in contact with a number of residents who have been involved in city issues to get their take on public involvement in the city. The vast majority agree that public participation in local government has declined. The main reason given was, "what's the use... it's a done deal."  Another  point made more than once  was," Some cannot afford the luxury to spend time to be knowledgeable and outspoken on issues and have to work extra/spend more time making ends meet." Other contributing factors put forward were a lack of information made available by the city;  and a  failure of the local press to  be," willing to do the work to present both sides."

 Based on discussions with city staff, and statements made by members of the City Council, they would take issue with the position that they are responsible  for a decline in public participation.  They note that the city adheres to opening meeting laws and  residents have access to minutes and documents on line. Those with questions can contact the appropriate staff. However, is meeting the requirements of  open meeting laws enough? 

 Meeting the letter of the open meeting laws is a rather passive approach  leaving it up to residents to attend meetings and  do their own research.  It  also requires a working understanding of  such things as zoning law and city/state ordinances.  But its greatest short- coming is that it's not a very effective way of informing the public at large. These shortcomings of meeting  the letter of the  law on open meeting laws was highlighted by an individual who responded to my e-mail inquiry on public participation in regard to the courts.

 The Council has held a public hearing  on the courts (albeit limited to which court complex to build), has posted  the proposals on line  and set up an e-mail address for public comments. As far as the city is concerned it has met its duty to the public. Some would disagree:

 " When the court bids came in, I was very much looking forward to participating, including plans to read through each of the bids (no trivial task), evaluate them as best I could, and provide meaningful feedback to the decision makers in the process.

 Then the city hired an outside firm to study the bids, and kept their report out of the public domain. They used the information in that report to help them narrow the field.
     
I felt like a stooge. My attitude immediately changed, and here's why: Why should I spend ANY time evaluating bids that were going to be tossed out based on criteria that were kept secret? I don't have a problem with using professionals to evaluate bids. It's probably even wise. But when you keep those results secret from me, I can't evaluate the validity of the report."

Add to this the fact that comments to the e-mail address are not acknowledged.  That  City Council is not informing the public of their positions on the issues,  voting without comment, and referring questions to staff seems to justify the  perception of many who say, "what's the use," in getting involved, "it's a done deal." 
It has been intimated by some that  too much public involvement is counterproductive.  Such participation delays the decision making process and creates a chaotic atmosphere that puts the city in a bad light. Their view is we elect a City Council to make  decisions.

One  example  brought forward to support this view  was the construction of the downtown hotel. Sometimes referred to  as the, "Third Battle of Fredericksburg." this issue was hotly debated.  At times it looked like there would be no hotel and some felt  that the debate would negatively impact future economic development opportunities.  In the end,  instead of a cookie -cutter hotel  the city now has a successful one that fits the downtown character  and is an industry  model.
What those who see such a process as time-consuming and chaotic fail to recognize that by encouraging public involvement different perspectives are presented, suppositions are tested, and  other alternatives are bought forward.  Just as important,  addressing public comments, questions, and concerns builds community support.  An assumption is also made that if he public does not come forward on an issue it means they support it.  This assumption is both baseless, and more importantly, irrelevant.

Local  government is here to serve the needs of the community which also provides the money to meet those needs. In that regard they have a vested interest in local government and should expect  their views to be considered and be  well informed  of the actions being taken on their behalf.  Meeting this obligation calls for more than only doing what is required by law. So what should be expected?
Right now  city staff is  not only called upon to field comments and questions from the public  but  is also called upon by the City Council to explain the city's actions to the public. While staff has always been accommodating to resident inquires their primary function is running the city.  The job of informing the public, and encouraging their participation,  should rest with the City Council.

Issues need to be discussed outside  of council chambers. Council members should engage the public through  neighborhood meetings, writing OpEds, giving interviews, and using  the internet.  Such efforts need to occur well before public hearings and/or votes to insured that the public is familiar with all aspects and options related to the issue at hand. While the public should not expect council members to share their view on an issue  but they should expect their questions answered, suggestions considered, and concerns addressed.
The local press needs to be an active participant in this effort by  providing background, cover differing views, and report council members positions. Also to provide Council the opportunity to write OpEds on the issues of the day. The shared goal of the council and the press should be to ensure the  public has the information necessary to engage in the discussion.

The public should also be viewed as a resource to assist in the decision-making process.   By taking pro-active steps to ensure a well-informed public the city will benefit  from an informed debate on the issues facing the city.  The city has had some success with establishing committees of residents with expertise on an issue, an interest in the issue, and/or  who have divergent views on an issue, to build consensus and ensure that all options were considered.
The view From City Hall is that they are doing what is required to inform the public. This  is tantamount to saying public involvement is something to be dealt with not embraced.  This attitude, in part, has contributed to the decline of public participation. The result is a wealth of knowledge, new ideas, and different perspectives not being considered or utilized. At a  time when the city is facing many challenges we can use all the help we can get.  And there needs to be a realization  of who the boss is--The public.

Shoul public involvement be viewed as a help or a hinderance  to local governance?    

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Matt, good post. Local government should be where the citizens are the most active. I do agree that the problem with Fredericksburg's local government is two-fold - a lack of quality information and decisions made without concern for comments or the public's position. However, if issues are devisive, the more reason to include the public in them, regardless of how bitter it gets - that's the American process and is a system that works. If devisive decisions are made without public debate, then is the council doing its job in representing the public's interest? However, many times I've felt that speaking to the city council at its meeting is a "feel good" opportunity for the public as I have yet to see any decision altered or shelved based upon comments made by the public.

Mike Landree

Larry G said...

the trouble is that both public officials and some of the public itself .... actually fear a full-bodied public process.

and not without some justification - witness the UN conspiracy / tea party /property rights folks that showed up at the recent Spotsylvania hearings on UDAs.

there was a suspicion, also with some justification, on the part of some of the public that a carefully manipulated series of "workshops" - had the appearance of manipulation of the way the workshops were conducted to minimize question and objections and to seek support for the planners preferred path.

VDOT took the same approach with the Outer Connector hearings.... attempting to quiet the opponents, discourage questions and ally themselves with the public that supported their proposal.

Glad to see Matt now wearing the other show...

:-)

Matt - did you do everything you should have as an elected official to encourage a legitimate public process?

My "take" is that if public officials don't insist on fair and open public hearings.. that little by little - as controversial things come up.. one or two will do want they can to undercut the hearing process - and succeed.

So far.. in the last 20 years .. I have yet to hear a single public official strongly advocate for more, better, open public hearings.

Almost always..they either sit quietly or they actually work to minimize public hearings...

In the end, we all lose because what happens is the decisions get made by smaller groups... and no matter who you are - at some point..you are not one of those in those smaller groups and you find yourself on the outside looking in ... and hoisted on your one's own petard!

Just once - I'd like to see a candidate for office have as one of their promises - to seek to have open hearings... and to minimize closed meetings ....to only what is absolutely required.

MATT KELLY said...

As I noted in the OpEd through debate OF THE ISSUES, the best solutions come forward. As I've said on a number of occasions we may not agree on the issues but it is important that all perspectives are considered, and concerns addressed. We hope to achieve consensus but if not there should at least be understanding by all parties. Larry--Why do you think I started this blog, just had my 20th OpEd published, have at least(4) topics on FredTalk (and have posted 775 comments on a variety of topics under my own name) and am a Top Commenter on the Free Lance-Star website? Do you really think I’m trying to hide something? I would hope that my efforts to engage the public would speak for itself.