By Bill Oakey – June 30, 2014
In recent years it has become increasingly clear that major new projects and planning processes by local authorities lack sufficient citizen involvement. We have seen this evidenced by published reports that lack quantifiable results of citizen input. A perfect example is the so-called “Listening to the Community Report,” issued by the CodeNEXT team that is revising Austin’s Land Development Code. The glossy report does not mention one sentence of public sentiment nor does it feature a single chart or graph summering the opinions or contributions by citizens who came to public meetings or submitted online suggestions.
The Project Connect process that evolved into the East Riverside to Highland Mall urban rail plan featured open houses where citizens could come and ask questions. But there was no formal process for citizens to actually become functioning participants in the development and formulation of the plan. Not only that, the City Council did not hold a public hearing to solicit input from citizens after the final plan was adopted, during their joint meeting with the Capital Metro Board.
Rightly or wrongly, this lack of a formal citizen participation structure creates the perception that some of these major planning initiatives are driven by outside consultants who are handed pre-ordained marching orders at the beginning of the process. The end result is a fractured public opinion of the outcome, combined with a lack of trust in both the integrity of the process and the public officials behind it.
What we need is a fresh approach that strives to achieve consensus among interested stakeholders. It has often been said that democracy is a messy business. There is no way to get around division of opinions or to arrive at perfect conclusions that make everybody happy. But an open, inclusive process where the participants can see their ideas and contributions honestly reflected in elements of important plans would ensure much better public support at the end.
To not hold public hearings on major projects is nothing less than shameful. Public hearings should be held within enough time ahead of the final vote for the citizen input to be respected and considered in a meaningful way
Any major project or plan being considered will impact affordability. The public should be given accurate and timely cost estimates, where applicable, throughout the process.
What I propose is for interested citizens and local officials to develop the framework for a whole new reform to address this problem. It would probably take considerable time to work out the details of the reform and set it down on paper. But it might be one of the best things we could do to arrive at a point where Austinites feel comfortable working together on major, transformative plans that will shape the City’s future for generations to come.
A Public Engagement Ordinance
To kick off a discussion on this proposal, here are a few ideas for how public inclusion in local planning could be improved:
1. The City of Austin could develop and pass a general ordinance that prescribes a method for including public involvement in planning sessions for major projects or significant revisions to City laws and codes.
2. This ordinance should define how the public input will be gathered, compiled and reported by the group that is charged with writing the plan. Specific methods for evaluating citizen viewpoints and suggestions and incorporating them into the plans should also be defined.
3. Outside consultants and City staff who oversee major plans and projects should be required to adhere to the guidelines in the public involvement ordinance.
4. In a given planning process, various stakeholders from the community would participate in give and take sessions, where differing viewpoints are moderated on a fair and impartial basis. Facilitators at the public meetings should guide the participants in a consensus-building effort. Not everyone would end of with everything they like, but the process would help foster a spirit of openness and cooperation.
5. If there are easily discernible factions among the stakeholder groups, the moderators at the public meetings should attempt to resolve conflicts, in part by exploring the pros and cons of various scenarios.
6. Reports on the results of the plans would clearly articulate the prevailing viewpoints of the stakeholder groups, and illustrate the steps taken to resolve differences and arrive at a consensus. Clear explanations should be written showing why predominant ideas and suggestions from the public did not get adopted.
7. As a guide for putting together the framework for this reform, we should be able to find published resources with best practices for consensus-building efforts that have already been tried with successful results.
8. If the Austin City Council can formulate a workable planning procedure that better serves the public interest, then perhaps we can utilize that same model for Travis County, Capital Metro and other public entities.
The ideas listed above represent a very rough outline intended to start a discussion. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that our new district representatives on the City Council will be eager to seek ways to make local governance more open, transparent and inclusive. After all, they themselves will come from a reformed election process that sprang from the same goal.
Our city leaders often want to copy Seattle, but they are taking us down the path to be Detroit or St. Louis.