Improving Public Participation

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I appreciate the opportunity to provide ideas for improved civic engagement in planning for the future.  

These are random thoughts based on a level of frustration with the current process.

The goal of a public participation process is to reach a generally acceptable agreement on an outcome.  Time should be spent at the beginning designing a collaborative process that citizens, staff and developers feel comfortable with and willing to try.  The process should not be unilaterally or arbitrarily imposed on interested parties.  A level of concensus reasonably arrived at can facilitate implementation of a decision.

Groups and individuals should be identified and invited to participate in designing the process.  The City should welcome written comments.  More importantly, to ensure they have been read, the City should evaluate and provide written responses to thoughtful and reasonable comments.  The comments should be aggregated and posted on the City's website.

Consideration should be given to involving an experienced facilitator/mediator in designing and conducting the public participation process.

Citizens should feel the process is objective, acceptable, and fair.  The range of alternatives considered should attempt to reasonably address the interests or concerns raised through the process.  This involves staff and interested parties cooperating in providing written support for a general agreement or settlement of an major issue. 

A reasonable level of trust involving all parties, e.g., City staff, developers, and citizens should exist.  All parties should make good faith efforts to meet mutually agreed timeframes.  It should be expected that citizen groups and individuals will be directly and actively involved in setting meeting agendas, preparing issue papers, reviewing reports and studies, identifying issues and working cooperatively with City staff.  Meetings should not be listening sessions where staff consumes most of the meeting time.  There should be an expectation that information is available prior to the meeting that will faciliate reasonable discussion.

It is important that parties not mislead.  Reports and studies that are "aspirational" or "conceptual" should not suddenly become "approved" alignments or plans.  An alternative analysis involving a very narrow range of alternatives should not be the basis for planning for the future or justifying the expenditure of tax dollars. Reports "accepted" by VDOT with a condition that additional work will be necessary should not be represented as approving a specific intersection design or alignment.  

All parties and engaged citizens should cooperate in finding reasonable and constructive outcomes.  At the same time, there should be opportunties to look back and reevaluate earlier decisions when necessary.  

One last item.  The number of meetings held is not an indicator of success in reaching an agreement people can live with.  The meetings need to be productive, include next steps and follow-up or action items.

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