Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Public Meetings

Dorit Cypis put together an interesting workshop at the SCMA conference this past weekend, in which participants explored the power of forming small groups to engage in dialogue. This format has been used successfully in a number of contexts to allow different points of view in a community to be expressed and understood. (See my post below on the Days of Dialogue programs on the future of policing.) It works because the participants in these groups learn to see one another as human beings They feel safe in telling their stories and expressing their feelings because they are taught to listen respectfully when other members of the group do the same. The topic in our small groups at this conference was the very process in which we are engaged. In other words, we were encouraged to talk about our civic interests and experiences, and the tools we could bring to bear to facilitate dialogue on public issues.

Last night I happened to attend a public meeting in my neighborhood sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers and attended by other interested groups, to talk about plans for a nearby stretch of the LA River. They did not set up the room with round tables inviting random members of the community with varying concerns to engage in dialogue with one another, the format we were exploring over the weekend. But they also chose not to use the typical public meeting format either, where members of the audience are situated in opposition to officials who sit in the front of the room, and given a few minutes in front of the microphone to voice concerns to the people with authority. Instead the sponsors of the meeting employed a hybrid format where a number of tables were arranged around the auditorium, staffed by groups with different areas of expertise and interests who could answer questions from the public.

At least one member of the public was upset by this format. At the end of a short introductory message, where a Corps spokesman explained they would not be taking questions from the floor, she stood up and loudly protested being denied the right to publicly ask her list of questions, crying out, "This is supposed to be a public meeting!"

As much as we recognize the limitations of the traditional format of public meetings, it seems that some members of the public, and perhaps some officials also, actually prefer a confrontational style. Perhaps they feel that an "on the record" format is the best way to hold their officials accountable.  Or perhaps they simply enjoy engaging in confrontation rather than dialogue. I didn't get a chance to ask the woman who was unhappy about being denied the chance to stand up in front of everyone and ask her questions publicly, why she felt that was so important. But the episode did make me realize that it may go against the grain for at least some members of the community to ask them to eschew confrontation and conflict and instead engage in dialogue and collaboration.

I also learned that the thing that members of the public such as myself think of as the river bike path is instead thought of by the Army Corps of Engineers as an access road to a flood control project, that they allow the city to use as a bike path. A number of meeting formats can allow these different conceptual views to be expressed. I continue to believe, however, that a more collaborative process is best for designing solutions that serve all legitimate interests.

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