Council should aim to engage residents in problem-solving

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Feb 23, 2017

In the last few years, Rockland city councilors have hosted frequent workshops on ordinance and policy revisions in order to encourage civic engagement. Workshops, in contrast to the rigid formality of a city meeting, dispense with formal rules and allow citizens to informally address city councilors.

Workshops undoubtedly increase civic engagement and produce stronger ordinances. Last year, for example, the City Council held numerous workshops about the proposed short-term rental ordinance revision; this resulted in an ordinance that addressed many concerns citizens and business owners had. But workshops have their limitations.

First, workshops prioritize performances — one person speaks to the rest of the group, then another does, and another. In this scenario, the goal is to convince someone that you are right about the issue, rather than to find novel solutions or consensus.

Second, the model amplifies feedback from those most affected by an issue; this “participation bias” leads to questions about whether those who contact city councilors are representative of the larger community’s perspective on the issue or the discussion has been limited to those who know they will be affected by an issue, not necessarily all who will be affected.

The question of how to improve civic deliberation is a conundrum that aligns nicely with the current proposed discussion about relocating City Hall to a downtown location. While the two issues, civic buildings and civic engagement, appear disconnected, the physical location of City Hall downtown would explicitly welcome public engagement in a different way than the out-of-the-way (and almost out-of-town) location currently does.

A City Hall located within easy walking distance of most citizens would change the relationship of city government to citizens and vice versa. It would become a visible part of people’s lives rather than a place you go only when you are concerned (or excited) about a particular issue or need to pay your taxes or apply for a permit. A central City Hall building encourages people to enter that space and engage regularly.

Over the last 25 years, academics have begun to research public deliberation, exploring the problems in our current models and suggesting methods to remedy them. Two goals anchor this discussion: to increase the diversity of feedback from the community and to deepen the discussion so that meetings incorporate a process of coming to a conclusion, rather than a battle between previously determined viewpoints.

One way that researchers recommend encouraging civic dialog is to rearrange the furniture so that the space encourages a different way of engaging in civic discourse. In the current city chambers, the furniture reinforces a power differential between councilors and citizens: councilors are on a podium (or sit around a table), while the audience is physically separated and must move in order to participate. The space positions the audience as spectators rather than participants. While councilors are open about having citizens participate in the process, the space itself discourages or makes such discussion more difficult.

Rearranging a space is, of course, not enough to change discourse unless further strategies are adopted that shape discourse. Many municipalities have adopted strategies to increase the diversity of viewpoints they are exposed to — some randomly contact citizens to ask about about various issues, others submit potential policy revisions accompanied by “public engagement plans” that outline how they will solicit and evaluate public opinion, others design workshops as small-group discussions instead of town-meeting-style workshops.

These strategies are designed to solicit a wide range of opinions and perspectives from the community, not just the ideas that interested persons bring to the meeting, and they encourage vigorous dialog from participants, rather than speaker-focused meetings in which folks come with pre-planned comments; they substitute a process for a podium.

Once you have a wider range of opinions, a new difficulty emerges: how do you make choices for an entire community, especially when those who participate present competing ideas and voices? As we saw with the short-term rental discussion, there are strong reasons to adopt many competing provisions in an ordinance and weighing the specific proposals is difficult.

Fort Collins, Colo., sees this issue every time it proposes significant ordinance revisions or even something as seemingly palatable as a community garden in a popular park. Staff there report that the community is pretty much evenly divided on most issues. (They would know because they have an extensive system for soliciting feedback, and they consider soliciting public opinion an essential part of their staff culture.)

The goal in drafting policy is to reconcile these diverse opinions and develop some sort of consensus. This avoids letting the tyranny of a majority (even a very small majority) dominate.

In Rockland over the last few years, City Council has been adding more workshops to engage public opinion, and the current council has indicated a desire to continue to work to find ways to continue to engage with the public. Moving City Hall downtown is an outgrowth of this conversation. It’s also important not just to be accessible to people, but to expand the ways that the city and councilors hear from citizens who do not normally participate in the process. It’s also vital to create structures in which brainstorming about solutions and tapping into the community’s collective wisdom and problem-solving ability occur.

How do we invigorate civic discourse and encourage discussions between citizens and legislators in which meetings are not just a place to communicate opinions, but to shape solutions together?

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Comments (4)
Posted by: Maggie Trout | Feb 25, 2017 13:41

The writer disclosure and purpose of this column remains at issue.  If it is Op-Ed, it should be identified as such.  Otherwise, the disclosure.

Posted by: David E Myslabodski | Feb 25, 2017 12:55

Hi there C M A,


You either have not lived long enough in Rockland to have figured out how the decisions are made at city hall or . . .  you are willingly drinking their Kool-Aid.

Pls show me actions taken by council that are of a direct benefit to The People of Rockland . . . .

When The People show up, council "politely" listens to us and . . .  they keep pushing their gentrification agenda. The People have been requesting an open debate on the issues . . .

Remember that two monologues a dialogue do not make!

Posted by: Maggie Trout | Feb 24, 2017 17:55

To ensure journalistic integrity, it should be disclosed that Ms. Averitt serves on several City of Rockland committees.  Whether Ms. Averitt is writing for free,  getting paid by the newspaper as a freelance news writer, or is on the newspaper staff, there is no indication that her writings are a personal blog or opinion column, in which case, her direct involvement with the city would not be at issue.  I submit that there is a need for a disclosure statement, or identification of her columns as personal opinion.

Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Feb 24, 2017 12:17

Chelsea I like the direction you are going, not sure if we are taking the same road. Really behind you on more public participation and understand this input can often be skued towards personal opinion as opposed to the good of all. I would like to see local stations offer opportunities for call in public discussion shows to air opposing views.  Not sure if I agree a downtown city hall would change anything. If we are getting McClain school for free I would like to see that in town space developed for low cost housing. Not "low income " housings. I mean perhaps studio apts for all those young people who want to live in town but cannot afford $1,000 a month plus utilities. Just a different thought that hopefully can become part of a bigger conversation

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