I see the Pinehurst recall effort and community center reconsideration as symptoms of our local governance system gone awry. Over the years, there has been a growing emphasis on “public participation.”
Open meetings and records laws appropriately brought the workings of local government into the light of day. Local government professionals and academicians began to promulgate methodologies for seeking and receiving public input.
We moved from only having required public hearings at the end of the decision-making process to having public input sessions early on as policy was developed. Citizen committees, both standing and ad hoc, are set up to give feedback to elected officials.
Some communities conduct periodic statistically valid random sample surveys of residents to find out their views on municipal services.
And generally speaking, all of these efforts are worthwhile means to inform the elected officials’ decision-making process. However, somewhere along the way, the emphasis on “public participation” took on a life of its own and became an end in itself. In fact, it became an end that eclipsed the actual policy making process it was meant to inform.
Even if you are a casual observer of local decision-making, you can certainly think of issues where opponents attack a policy as being illegitimate because their voices were not heard, they were not given enough time to offer input, or a decision was rushed. In the last years of my career, I could comfortably predict that almost any policy under consideration would ultimately be attacked by opponents, not primarily on the substance of the policy, but rather on the process not having enough public input.
Some elected officials are becoming so focused on these “public participation” processes that they become an end in themselves. That is rather than providing information to inform decision-making, “public participation” becomes the decision.
During the Great Recession, I spent an extraordinary amount of time informing elected officials about the challenges we were going to face in the upcoming budget. We spent more time analyzing and discussing budget issues than had ever occurred in my career previously.
And yet when it came time to vote, one of the elected officials announced that he had been keeping track of the opinions of people who had spoken to him about the budget. Something like 20 were in favor and 15 opposed, so he was going to vote for the budget. I was mortified. He represented over 5,000 residents. What about those other 4,965 people? Did their views not count? More important, had they not elected him to make decisions based on his knowledge, experience and analysis rather than to be a simple tallier of opinions?
Here “public participation” became a substitute for actually making a rational decision based on an analysis of all of the facts and viewpoints.
However, this is not the worst of it. If you are going to be responsive to public input as your sole criteria for making a decision, then anytime you receive more negative input than positive, you will oppose the action proposed. Even worse is where just one opponent will be able to stop an action from occurring. A former staff member called it “government of one.” In this case, no action can occur if one opponent exists.
This seems to be where we are headed in local government decision-making. Most local issues will generate some avid opponents even when the general population is supportive, though not as avid in making their individual opinions known. By saying that elected officials need to be responsive to public opinion, opponents are really saying that because we are metaphorically yelling the loudest, you need to do as we say. If you don’t, your decision is illegitimate and we will recall you from office.
It is a sorry state of affairs. The greatest good for the greatest number seems to be lost as a guiding principle under this scenario. Getting involved early on in the policy-making process is not worth the time when you can enter the public discussion at the end of the process and stop anything from happening. But is this type of policy paralysis what most of us want? We have partisan gridlock nationally, which people seem to lament. Do we really want gridlock (without the partisan part) locally? Can’t we do better than that?