Debate Magazine

Public Involvement--More Or Less?

By Kelly058
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?    

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog