Not everyone is satisfied with how visioning process worked

Saturday, December 29, 2007 | 8:54 p.m. CST; updated 7:34 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
After months of work and extensive advertising, Visioning organizers attracted 470 people to cast votes for their favorite strategy statements. Some say the turnout could have been better.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of several stories on Columbia’s visioning process that were reported and written by journalists enrolled in professor Michael Grinfeld’s intermediate writing class in cooperation with The Missourian, Vox magazine, KBIA/91.3 FM and KOMU/Channel 8.

As the visioning phase of Imagine Columbia’s Future moves toward implementation, the process is being touted as a true citizen effort, destined to create real change in the city.

Not everyone is satisfied, though.

For some, the process and the outcome weren’t what they expected. Too structured, too vague, they say.

As doubts creep in, Columbia must decide how to proceed with a vision created with the best of intentions but perhaps imperfect execution.

“Those that participated wanted to do something, but they come away feeling that they didn’t do it right,” said Nancy Harter, who served on the governance/decision making topic group. “They want to support the process, but it didn’t go the way they thought it would.”

Consultants led the way

Columbia’s visioning process has been guided by ACP-Visioning and Planning consultants since fall 2006. Thirteen topic groups, including community character and economic development, drafted goals, strategies and action plans for each area over the next year.

In September, the Community Choices Open House offered citizens another chance to put in their two cents, or rather, six dots. Voters placed stickers on the six strategy statements most important to them.

Some worry the tally was skewed by voters who put their stickers all on one strategy or who followed a recommendation list from the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. But the vision committee’s co-chairs affirmed that the vote was never intended to eliminate any goals or strategies.

“There’s been some misconception that there’d be ranking or prioritizing,” Jeffrey Williams, visioning co-chair, said. “It was another in a series of events to get broad-based community input. It’s qualitative rather than quantitative.”

ACP’s draft report doesn’t include an ordered list of strategies based on the Community Choices vote. The 128 strategies are organized by topic, with vote totals in italics after each statement.

Committee co-chairs said they tried to get people to the eight-hour open house through advertisements and fliers (maybe with a message that led to the misconception: “Now YOU decide priorities for Columbia’s future”).

No online voting

Organizers scheduled the event to correspond with a Twilight Festival event and offered shuttles between downtown and the open house at Stephens College. Committee co-chair Diane Drainer said ACP could not offer an online election that would have prevented people from voting multiple times.

“Given the parameters, we tried to extend it and think about transportation,” Drainer said.

ACP told the committee 470 participants was a strong turnout. Others think Columbia could have done better.

“Four hundred people, is that enough?” asked Alyce Turner, who served on the governance/decision making group. “Does that reflect the 90,000 in the city? They tried. They advertised and had shuttles. But maybe that recruitment should have gone on longer.”

Perhaps the bigger question is not how many, but who, participated.

MU law professor Philip Harter, who specializes in mediating issues involving government policy, did not attend any of Columbia’s visioning meetings but followed the process, especially through his wife, Nancy.

A former director of the Program on Consensus, Democracy and Governance at Vermont Law School, Harter said he is leery of processes that are easily swayed.

It matters who votes

“If you have a vote, well, then that gets to be critical who is there,” he said. “It’s critical to know that the people voting are representative of the community. It’s so easy for the business community to stack it.”

Many who worked on citizen topic groups are people who already have influence in civic affairs as members of boards, committees and commissions.

Williams, who works in urban outreach for MU, said efforts were made to include a range of people in the process. He said visioning “outreach ambassadors” targeted various demographics, for instance, by going to primarily black churches to promote involvement. Williams said visioning leaders took the right steps, but he wishes there were more diversity in the outcome.

“There will always be people who do not engage,” Williams said. “To ask why not, it’s like asking about voting. Why don’t people vote in elections? It’s something to do with civic engagement. And some people have more immediate and mundane concerns.”

Time might have been an issue. Co-chairs estimate citizens together volunteered 7,000 hours to the effort. The ACP draft report attributes that to more than 1,000 people. It’s a difficult number to gauge, though, because no one knows the amount of overlap among the 450 who participated in the Big Idea Gathering Meetings, the 340 who served on citizen topic groups, the 278 who attended the Exploring the Vision Workshop and the 470 who voted at the open house.

Attendance dropped off

Either way, the commitment proved a challenge. Topic group meeting minutes show significant drop-offs in attendance in most categories.

Nancy Harter, who missed some meetings this summer, said she felt those who didn’t come to every session lost their voice.

“It seemed those who could stay on the longest and go to the most meetings at the end got their ideas through,” she said.

Harter and Turner said the process was more controlled than they would have liked.

“Groups needed to have more input on the structure to say, ‘This is where we want to go,’” Turner said. “It was a good effort, but there should have been more freedom. It felt like already planned visioning.”

Others said at least the format kept them on task.

Following the formula

“The structure is always inhibiting,” said Carol DeLaite, who served on the arts and culture topic group. “You start in the beginning brainstorming these big ideas, then suddenly there’s 20 minutes to deadline. You have to follow this formula, and so you just write something down. It’s not much different than other processes.”

But process is important.

“If people think the process is suspect, there’s a disavowal of what comes out of that,” Philip Harter said.

Pack Williams, who started on the development topic group but didn’t have time to continue going to meetings, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“I got such assurance from the consultant that this would make some changes in governance and zoning policy,” he said. “So far from what I’ve read or seen, it didn’t quite do that. It got watered down. The statements I read were pretty vague.”

The 13 groups created 41 goals and 128 strategies, each with action plans. Some are more extensive than others, citing multiple stakeholders, ways to jump start implementation and required resources.

Some are direct calls for action: “Establish a locally administered Housing Trust Fund with a dedicated revenue source.” Others are broad ideals: “Ensure that as we grow we preserve our heritage and uniqueness.”

How to implement

“Certainly some ideas are abstract,” Williams said. “That just means there is more than one way to implement them.”

Implementation is the big question at this stage of the process. Neither the committee nor the citizens are too clear about what happens next, but ACP’s recent draft report offers suggestions.

The vision must be approved by the City Council and other governing bodies, including the Boone County Commission, colleges and MU and the Columbia Board of Education.

ACP recommends the city then create a temporary implementation committee to sort out tasks and duties. The committee would comprise high-level representatives from the city, county, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders.

“In today’s world, any successful community initiative requires public and private cooperation,” said Marty Siddall, general manager of KOMU and chairman of the board of directors for the chamber of commerce. “The government, community and business community each have their role and responsibility.”

Citizens who participated said they will remain engaged.

“Once you ask people to invest, you have to be aware that they will be involved and won’t stop,” Nancy Harter said. “The city has opened Pandora’s box. They (citizens) will keep after the city, and I think that’s a good thing.”

After the implementation committee dissolves, ACP recommends that a vision management and oversight entity take over for the next five years. The entity might be supported by city staff or created through an existing nonprofit organization, or it could be set up as an independent entity that attains its own not-for-profit status. The entity will coordinate implementation activities and conduct regular reviews to ensure the city is living up to its vision.

Co-chair Drainer said accountability will be key to the success of the program.

“Without accountability, there is no implementation,” Drainer said. “I did not get involved in this process to have a report be put on the shelves.”

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