Better Community Engagement Needed

[Cross-posted from the Chapel Hill News]

If there’s one thing our local elected officials must do in 2016, it’s doing a better job soliciting and incorporating community input into their decisions. Our current talking-at-elected-officials-at-podiums-at-7-p.m. model isn’t working for the great majority of residents in our community. This method excludes too many people, and it privileges those who can spend many hours participating in lengthy meetings.

Planning projects in Chapel Hill are not for the fainthearted. Town Council meetings often last past midnight. Few people have the time to wait for hours just for their chance at a three-minute public comment. Other projects have included the formation of committees like the Central West Steering Committee or Obey Creek Compass Committee that end up holding lengthy meetings regularly for several months to a year. The people who can attend these meetings typically aren’t the working couple with three school-age kids, the young adult with a day job who waits tables at night to earn some extra money, or our lower-income neighbors who work two and three jobs to afford to live in our community.

The nature of our current planning and public participation processes can give elected officials a skewed sense of public opinion on a matter. A few people who perceive a negative impact to them personally can have an outsized effect by showing up repeatedly at the same meetings, while the silent majority that supports a particular action is not heard. Which is more reflective of “public opinion”—the people who talk loudest, or the people who are silent but supportive?

This is not to criticize staff who work hard to engage the community. We recognize that staff are working within the confines of the law and what time they can commit to public participation efforts—and, to their credit, we have seen some innovative engagement in our community. A stellar example is the recent bike plan in Chapel Hill, which used a variety of in-person and online methods to gather input from a wide range of community members. The tavern talks, part of Chapel Hill 2020, are another good example. The true problem with public participation is a systemic one in local government processes as they currently exist.

It is true that public hearings are mandated by law, and they’re not going away without state action to change processes. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come up with creative solutions that support broad participation, particularly from those most affected by an issue. Those most affected are often lower-income residents who are also often left out of the conversation. Students in our schools routinely Skype with elementary school classes in faraway places. Surely we’re smart enough to find innovative ways to connect more segments of our community with elected officials.

For example, there are smartphone apps that facilitate community engagement activities. These apps would allow elected bodies to obtain feedback on key issues without the requirement of residents showing up for a public hearing and having to wait their turn to be heard. We should also be encouraging our elected officials to take the public hearing to the community instead of expecting them to come to Town Hall. Set these listening sessions at times that community members can attend, perhaps scheduling them to coincide with set community events. We have a vibrant bar scene in Chapel Hill where many of our town’s younger residents spend their time. Why not engage these residents where they’re already spending time and feel comfortable?

Our community is more than just the handful of individuals who attend local government meetings. It’s time that we truly recognize this by prioritizing creative community engagement that doesn’t require being at a specific location at a specific time for hours on end. Our community—and the outcomes of our planning processes—will be better for it.

Total votes: 218

Comments

Your "perception of a negative impact" of the time shift for starting town planning and advisory meetings seems at best without merit and at worst somewhat hysterical. Fact is, no one on this board knows just how many people would be affected by the time shift. My guess is that the shift won't keep a single person in the community from engaging creatively with town government. And it's more likely to bring out a few more than were participatring before the change. And in that respect it is a positive move.

I would advise taking care with your platitudes, though. Great majority? The "great majority" of Chapel Hill residents couldn't find their way to a town meeting even if you promised them free lottery tickets upon arrival. The "great majority" of town residents are stuck in traffic at the usual meeting start times of 6 p.m. Heck, the "great majority" of town voters didn't even show up at the polls in November. So trotting out the "great majority" to hang your argument on is a canard.

Fact is, if you've been to any of the town's many planning or advisory meetings, you'd know that they are very sparsely attended and almost always let out well before the buses stop running. So the time change will not affect a "great majority."

As far as timing is concerned, a few of the Central West and Obey Creek meetings were held during working hours and on weekends. I don't recall the OP cohort complaining about the convenience of that issue.

Focusing on a time shift that would allow folks to get through dinner and children's homework before setting off to a meeting just makes sense. Mayor Hemminger's time shift is what you could call a creative solution to a problem that could bring more residents to meetings and is more likely to encourage participation.

And invoking the "silent majority"? Last time I heard that phrase, Richard Nixon was using it to justify an unpopular foreign war and to have cops beat up protesters who disagreed with his policies.

 

You’re correct when you note, “The ‘great majority’ of Chapel Hill residents couldn't find their way to a town meeting even if you promised them free lottery tickets upon arrival.” So why are we relying almost exclusively on spending all evening in person at a public meeting to give a three-minute speech as the way we solicit citizen’s feedback? How can you say Molly’s call for re-thinking public engagement is “without merit” when you yourself admit most Chapel Hillians currently are left out? I have to wonder if the negative reactions to the mere idea of inclusive public engagement stem from people who don’t want to give up their oligopoly on the opinions town leaders hear from residents.

.....I still want to know what specifically are these "creative solutions"? Some better outreach is possible but limited by open meeting law, I think "government 101" courses and FAQs would be helpful. However, many of the new technologies don't scale, are abused creating more noise than signal and most importantly, exclude some communities. I think everyone wants better and wider communication channels but how to accomplish this while limiting the unintended consequences?

I understand the impatience but I do not think the word oligopoly applies in the marketplace of community involvement. There is a process. It is open to everyone. It has limitations and requires effort. There is no requirement to be informed, but your value definately depends on that. What specifically do you suggest to improve or replace it?

As an aside I think the print media has left a significant information gap. I think they tend to be superficial and ignore important issues; or attempt to inflame rather than investigate others. I think that the internet and corporate ownership may have dealt them a fatal blow. Broadcast media has the same issues; they are just a few flushes behind the print media.

RIGHT ON! DEVAN

I'm curious if Molly beleives that this is a new problem, or did it exist before Novemer 2015?  At the least, Mayor Hemminger is trying to do something.  That's more proactive  than we saw in the years and years before.

I distinctly remember the current Mayor saying that she was interested in holding town halls in various locations.  That would seem to be in keeping with what you are looking for.  The Mayor also asked the public for suggestions for work sessions, so propose a work session on tech precesses (or any processes) to increase public participation.  I hope you will have specifics in mind that are equitable and don't require too much investment of time or money.

The "silent but supportive people" you are concerned about were exhorted to go out and vote by ALL of the candidates, and yet, despite early voting and weekend voting 15% of the eligible voters chose to have their say. Why? That was their time - how do you draw a conclusion that those same people would be more involved only "if?"

By writing "the working couple with three school-age kids, the young adult with a day job who waits tables at night to earn some extra money, or our lower-income neighbors who work two and three jobs to afford to live in our community" an implied sub-text of us vs them was communicated.  You don't know (and I don't know) what these people think, though I would venture to guess that they wouldn't be in favor of more and more luxury apartments.  The unspoken thought seems to be that those people would all be arguing against those "who can spend many hours participating in lengthy meetings."  As one who has done that I can assure you that it is not a "privilege,"  but a responsibility that comes at personal costs. Creating divisivness just won't help anyone.

....the divisiveness she bemoans was created by the very policies of the past eight years. Permitting +5000 units of high rent apartments with relatively little commercial, especially in prime places where commercial development made more sense than apartments. Because residential does not cover its costs, the result is higher taxes, fewer local businesses and jobs and the overall yuppification of Chapel Hill, forcing the very people whose participation Molly is concerned about to move elsewhere. On top of all that, we now see how the skids were greased for developers in backroom deals. 

What is truly Orwellian is that the new administration has barely had one meeting, this blog, that had been silent on the issue for eight years, calls for greater "transparency" and communication. Offering absolutely no substantive suggestions on how to accomplish said transparency and then questions (I guess rhetorically) where the young leaders have gone........yikes! The question is not where have they gone as much as where were they?

'...this blog, that had been silent on the issue for eight years, calls for greater "transparency" and communication.'

If only the editors of this blog had talked about communication and participation at some point in the past eight years.

....no substantive response. eom

Fair enough. Here are four concrete ideas we could start this year:

  1. Let citizens give their three-minute speeches live via Skype or pre-recorded via video messaging.  Seriously. It's 2016.
  2. Hold public meetings and information sessions at places where people are already gathered at times they’re already there, such as the Library or the U-Mall Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.
  3. Create dedicated Facebook pages for big issues so citizens can stay up to date and share updated with their neighbors.  People don't hang out on the town website and the paper ain't what it used to be. People are gathered on Facebook.
  4. Individual council members could hold regular “join me for lunch/dinner/coffee” sessions. Lee Storrow actually did it, but he was always at the Yuppie joints. I’d do it at K&W.

Think they suck? Offer better ideas. Won’t work? Improve them. Know ways to reach people who aren’t tech savvy, are economically disadvantaged, or who aren’t native English speakers? Don’t just point out the obvious fact that these ideas leave out important people. Suggest ways that will reach these citizens.

No, It's not fair to expect change overnight. And, yes, I have faith that almost all our elected officials really do want to represent our whole town. But if nothing has changed by 2019, incumbents can’t run for re-election claiming they “listened to the people.”  

....and no, they don't suck.

  1. Let citizens give their three-minute speeches live via Skype or pre-recorded via video messaging.  Seriously. It's 2016.

Well yes and no. For the media savvy types its 2016, for others not so much. This means that certain people will be excluded because of technology. I think there is also the danger of an insane amount of data and useless rants. Who sets themselves up to judge the content? Would the Skype be synchronous or asynchronous? If asynchronous, do the videos get played individually/during the meeting? Also, I object because I have a face made for radio.

Seriously though, I do not think the idea is bad, but there needs to be serious refinement and probably an amendment to Chapter 143 Article 33C. Might be worth a discussion with the UNCSoG.

Interestingly, Minnesota has a specific reference to Skye in their open meetings law. The requirement is that the session be synchronous as in interactive TV. (pg. 7)  http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/openmtg.pdf  I am guessing when it is cold enough Skype starts to make very good sense to everyone involved.

  1. Hold public meetings and information sessions at places where people are already gathered at times they’re already there, such as the Library or the U-Mall Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.

I think the above is a good idea worth pursuing, especially for things like Bonds or major development. I also think they would be good listening sessions where the communities could express ideas without the three minute restriction. Still probably need some anti-filibuster controls though

  1. Create dedicated Facebook pages for big issues so citizens can stay up to date and share updated with their neighbors.  People don't hang out on the town website and the paper ain't what it used to be. People are gathered on Facebook.

Sigh, that technology divide thing again. I know many people who shun FB because the marketers have a hold of it I am probably a bit older than you are, and I can tell you I have a very different expectation of privacy from many folks I know that are younger than I. Personally, I would prefer issue centric list serves myself, which might be bonded to FB somehow.

  1. Individual council members could hold regular “join me for lunch/dinner/coffee” sessions.Lee Storrow actually did it, but he was always at the Yuppie joints. I’d do it at K&W.

IMO, another good idea worth trying. I would go to the K&W.

1. Skype is not a feasible idea. I explained why from a technical and time management perspective in another thread. Plus, what purpose does Skype offer that cannot be achieved through email? Not sure why email isn't sufficient, but Peak Democracy offers local governments a platform for online public forums. You just have to remember that doing anything like this comes with staffing requirements: http://www.peakdemocracy.com/

 

 

2. Public meetings for Ephesus-Fordham, Obey Creek, Rosemary St and a host of other projects have been held at different times at the library, at bars, at town hall and it's still the same people showing up.

3. The town has published web pages specific to individual projects since the 2020 meetings.

4. Lee Storrow and Mark K have both held off-time meetings, but Council members have jobs and families. They aren't being paid for full time employment. Some ideas are good and creative but not feasible. It would be a shame to penalize those electeds to segment off certain times of their lives as private just for the sake of doing something that doesn't really make a difference. Small group, unrecorded meetings with electeds would be criticized extensively if anyone thought those meetings were resulting in preconceived decisions. Sunshine is the key to open government. 

Change.org gives everyone the right to create an online petition. There are also public survey tools, like SurveyMonkey, available. Citizens have presented surveys on Ephesus-Fordham and Obey Creek and they accomplished nothing more than all the public input. 

I'm not trying to be a naysayer here. I just think the first step to any problem is actually defining the right problem. And I disagree with Molly and Matt that the problem here is a lack of opportunity for the public to provide input. http://reboot.org/2013/03/27/is-open-government-working/

 

you really just opened up a rebuttal to a woman by accusing her of being "hysterical." 

 

 

I think what makes this topic somewhat navel gazing is 1)  email is a pretty easy way to give input to the Town and sometimes you even get a response from a council member which is not allowed or given during public comment.  So email is in many ways more rewarding than blabbing for 3 minutes with no response.  2)  the last few councils seemed to completely ignore public input anyway, which is why this is topic is not as important as why does council ignore input.  Ephesus Fordham and obey creek seem to have lots of public input yet the last council mostly ignored it.

 

If technology was really going to be used in a useful way it would be to have online "votes" /input to see where the community stands on issues,  which is more democratizing than seeing how many people want to blab for 3 minutes by skype or any other method.  Some people don't like public speaking etc...

 

p.s. is there anywhere I can give input about why upzoning an area for 600 market rate apartments for commuters to durham or RTP is nuts.  Particularly since the Town would donate land for a road that degrades the usage of existing public facilities (tennis courts and ephesus elementary and ballfield).?  Or would skyping that make it more effective....

That’s a great idea to use surveys more often to gauge our citizen’s opinions. It's true—some folks don’t feel comfortable making public speeches. While some might rightly worry if a few people will vote many times, modern survey software has ways to ensure one vote per person. Add it to the list I started above!

I agree with the survey idea as long as the questions are not spun to achieve a specific outcome. 

Radiomatt-you came up with some really good suggestions - why not put them in an email and send to Mayor and Council?

 

 
 

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