GENE ROBERTSON: Community planning shouldn't be a waste of time

Monday, June 13, 2011 | 11:43 a.m. CDT

I strongly encourage citizen participation in all of the decisions that affect our lives. It is one of the vital privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.

Yet, I discourage the charade of citizen participation as a means of creating the false impression that citizens are making inputs if they are not.

We are constantly being encouraged to participate in charrettes, future planning, education cafes, etc.  Many well-intentioned task-force members sincerely want to assist decision makers in brainstorming, goal-setting and planning programs that will serve the needs of citizens.

Too often they find out that the citizen participation process was only a ruse to give the appearance that citizens were considered when programs were developed or discontinued.

The results of these efforts by citizens, who donate their time, energy and brainpower, many times do not reflect their desires and intentions. The administrators conducting these faulty processes succeed in dressing their preplanned programs with false gowns of authentic citizen participation.

In order to avoid the common bait-and-switch masquerade, there are steps citizens can take to avoid investing their currencies of time, knowledge and legitimacy to a process that only reflects what the administrators wanted to achieve.

A first step would be to demand that the staff present concrete plans for the proposal. Don’t accept the idea that they have not given the process any thought. They have, and they know what they want as an outcome of the supposedly joint endeavor.

The administrators’ or consultants’ goals are a legitimate place to start instead of some false blank page, which you are encouraged to fill with their preconceived ideas.

Next, commit to the process from its beginning through the implementation, evaluation and end. Better yet, demand a citizens’ evaluation of the achieved goals be a part of the stated process.

Finally, hold the sponsors of the process accountable for the integrity of the process.

Citizen participation is a valuable resource of any governmental process, but it must be respected, not misused.

It is the responsibility of the citizen and the sponsoring organizations to enhance the community.    

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Mike Martin June 13, 2011 | 1:47 p.m.

Truer words were never written and I congratulate Professor Robertson for writing about this with such clarity.

Many volunteer citizen commissions here are indeed ruses.

Talented, eager, civics-minded people gather to perform some task on behalf of local government only to find their voices co-opted in order to reach some pre-ordained conclusion, e.g. "Columbia needs a new road tax"; "Columbia needs a new property tax"; "Boone County needs a new sales tax"; "so-and-so needs a TIF."

Any dissenting opinion is systematically shut down, and new ideas tossed out in favor of the desired result.

Increasingly, word is getting out about this tactic and smart, engaged people are turning away from this kind of service. That's unfortunate, because good ideas and people who can articulate them are in short supply.

(Report Comment)
Tony Black June 13, 2011 | 2:53 p.m.

Exactly like the ECAP plan. Months of prep only to be ignored at the first opportunity.

(Report Comment)
Laura Johnston June 13, 2011 | 4:00 p.m.

From reader Charles Dudley:
This is just like the City Of Columbia Disability Commission of Columbia has been left out of a lot of business dealings between the City Council and new businesses and developments in the past and must stand up and fight to be heard in these and a lot of issues that effect ALL citizens of Columbia and even into the county.

The latest and still biggest issue is the Dinner Train where the Disability Commission was left completely out of the process until after the fact.

Agree a lot of advertising is put into filling commission seats but just how much if any does City Council truly listen to it's commissions? I hope with our new City Manager all of the City of Columbia City Commissions are given more respect and truly listened to.

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett June 13, 2011 | 4:04 p.m.

Thought-provoking article. The ideas in this article should be the focus of the meetings that request citizen participation. Speaks volumes! Needed to be said - and to be honored, as said. Kudos to the author!

(Report Comment)
Verna Laboy July 12, 2011 | 10:05 a.m.

Amen! Brother! I would hope that the facilitators of such events and processes have a full understanding when presenting the information to participants of the outcomes desired as well as the goals/intents so that the participants have full disclosure so to speak...and can then make an educated decision as to whether or not, the process might be a waste of their precious time. I hate to be used! I dislike being misled! I desire to make a difference in my community and lend a voice to the process.

(Report Comment)

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