Photo by Atomic Taco

One of the most cherished realms of contemporary planning is the allowance for public participation, a tool often embraced for fostering democratic processes at the most local level of civic engagement.  It also happens to be one of the most contentious aspects that planners and policymakers face.  Borne out of a certain necessity in reaction against the top-down planning fiascoes of urban renewal, public participation has yielded issues of its own, often wielded as a tool for obstructionism and calling into question the distribution of citizen power.

Will Doig at Salon has an excellent article on how the public participation has been misused and abused over the years, allowing a disproportionate amount of power to be consolidated into the hands of a few:

These rules, designed to check the power of city officials, now perversely consolidate immense power in the hands of a few outspoken “concerned citizens.” By dragging out the building process indefinitely, these people can make it so expensive that deep-pocketed luxury developers have a better chance of surviving it than anyone actually building affordable housing. Worst of all, these rules have created a new norm in which individual residents just assume that their personal opinions should carry great weight in routine planning decisions.

More below the jump.

I don’t think there’s any question that our current system of public participation is very flawed, whichever angle you come at it from.  Not only does the public process fail to be truly representative of the community at hand, it can often also be used more as a political flag  than an actual participatory planning tool.  Nonetheless, I do think there is particular value to outlets that engage community input, some of which have yielded fruitful and creative ideas over time.

Doig goes on to talk about different ways in which jurisdictions are considering limiting citizen power.  I’m not entirely convinced this kind of one-size-fits-all approach is the right antidote for NIMBYism and am more of the opinion that doing so doesn’t really solve the issue. Certainly, there are a number of valid critiques of the system that need to be addressed, but I think the fundamental flaw behind our public process is that opposition usually sprouts from either 1) lack of full understanding of a project, 2) advancement of one particular narrow interest, or both.

Instead of reforming the way we structure the institution of public participation, I’m a firm believer that there simply has to be better transparency and communication from the project sponsors.  Beyond simply raising mitigation as a consolation prize to NIMBYs, lead agencies and developers need to do a better job at defending their projects from oft-misguided critiques.  Often times, opposition seems to stymie a project’s progress simply because obscured information leaves supporters with little ammunition to go off on.

Contrary to rolling back citizen power, this actually gives an opportunity to make the public process far more robust than the typical oral testimony taken at at council/commission/review board meetings, through which input is often skewed anyway.  Done right, proper communication and transparency can actually deplete the bargaining power of NIMBYs, not because their say is diminished, but because there are stronger grounds for competing information.

Though pluralism, by definition, dictates that there is an impossibility in satisfying everyone, maintaining equity in the process can establish a consensus that the project must be driven by the overall benefit to the community, not just how it will impact one party.  Matt Yglesias has a good quote on the subject from a Greater Greater Washington livechat: “It’s good to listen to everyone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do what they want.”

77 Replies to “Rethinking Public Participation”

  1. Great Yglesias quote. The point of public input is to make sure the professionals understand all of the issues – many of which local neighbors and community members might have a better grasp on. But the public should have zero power to change or stop a project. Their power should be limited to the voting booth, where everyone has a say.

    1. The problem is with timelines. Many projects have been years in planning and often were authorized by prior votes over a half a decade to a decade ago. Of course in the meantime demographics changed and then one wonders about the legitimacy of the mandate…

      1. No. I don’t believe in direct democracy – it generally just provides cover for politicians to justify bad decisions. Your chance to influence a project comes indirectly: from the politicians you help elect.

        These are career professionals that are paid to understand the intricacies of politics, funding, and legal constraints. Our duty is to hire the ones that are good at their jobs and agree with us about the fundamentals.

      2. But who is “us”? The problem arises when something unpopular occurs during the process such as the 900 stall garage of DOOM. Suddenly what was the product of careful consideration of professionals is seen as power grab circumventing the “will” of the people.

        I am personally quite opposed to direct democracy, especially expressed in our state-wide initiative process, because we end up with quite poor results especially when politicians punt complex policy decisions to the populi.

        As for the public comment process … the squeaky wheel gets the grease

      3. We’re fundamentally stuck with two options:
        1. Give ultimate power to our politicians.
        2. Give ultimate power to the squeeky wheels.

        I’d much rather have system #1, even if I happen to be that squeeky wheel. We currently have mostly system #2, which is a failure. The Seattle process is burdensome, and it’s far too easy for NIMBYs to stop good projects. Even when the politicians have power here, they defer to the squeeky wheels, pretending they are a representative sample of the voters (they aren’t). We did not elect the squeeky wheels, and they often serve their own interests, rather than the public.

        Whether we’re talking about the garage or any other project, the right approach is to have a public comment section before decisions are made, then make decisions independantly. Don’t trust any politician that uses this process to say wanted to vote one way, but instead did what “the public” wanted. They’re either lying to you, or have lost any rational idea of democracy.

      4. Our duty is to hire the ones that are good at their jobs and agree with us about the fundamentals.

        The key word there is hire. Politicians know who their big donors are and their one vote counts more than your one vote. Then there’s both the legal and illegal income which usually exceeds, sometimes vastly exceeds the salary they are paid.

      5. “illegal income which usually exceeds… the salary they are paid” Usually? Do you have any data for this?

        Yes, I fear paid-for politicians. But I’ve also been to city hall meetings (in a different city) with hundreds of what clearly were paid supporters of a new power plant. If the problem is corruption, let’s solve the problem. Not toss out a good system in exchange for a bad system with the same flaws.

      6. Look at how much the Clintons have made since he left office. Check out Newt’s consulting fees after he left congress. Look at some of the speaking fees Senators are allowed to legally collect while in office. Then there’s the whole issue of insider trading with Congress. Of course as you work your way down the food chain it’s less lucrative. But do you honestly think Mayor Nickles was given a Harvard Fellowship based on his academic achievements (hint, he never completed his undergrad work at UW)?

      7. I want to hear about local level politics. The only one you mention is Nickles, and I’m missing the corruption link between Seattle and Harvard.

      8. I really doubt that you want to hear about it but you could start here:
        The Squeaky Wheel. I don’t want to paint the picture that Republicans are above reproach but King County has been controlled by the Democrats just about forever. If you want bipartisan corruption you’d probably be best off researching Texas. But don’t get hung up on corruption. Cronyism isn’t illegal per se but it’s how most favors are traded.

      9. Speaking of speaking fees here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

        Mr. Romney added: “And then I get speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

        In fact, in the most recent year, Mr. Romney made $374,327.62 in speaker’s fees, at an average of $41,592 per speech, according to his public financial disclosure reports.

        $374,000 Is “Not Very Much” To Mitt Romney. Is he really that eloquent or do you think maybe there might be some hope of political influence? Nah, that’d never happen here in the U S of A.

      10. As I said, I’m with you on the corruption/cronyism at the national level. There are some great Planet Money and This American Life episodes going into this in detail. We need to fix this.

        I was just surprised that most of Seattle politicians’ incomes come from illegal sources, and was/am pretty sure you were making that part up.

        Anyway, if you have a solution I’m all ears. I have one, but we’re straying far off topic. Here’s the teaser though: secret ballots.

      11. I was just surprised that most of Seattle politicians’ incomes come from illegal sources, and was/am pretty sure you were making that part up.

        There you go again, making stuff up. I never said that. Read carefully:

        Politicians know who their big donors are and their one vote counts more than your one vote. Then there’s both the legal and illegal income which usually exceeds, sometimes vastly exceeds the salary they are paid.

        Notice the word “local” is your fabrication and then you define local to be Seattle. Why not King County or Washington State? But it’s not like Seattle’s been immune to administrative malfeasence. Take for instance the Seattle schools financial scandal. It’s the elected officials who’s job it is to watch the hen house. And cronyism:

        Stephens resigned from the district prior to the scandal to work as deputy assistant secretary for administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

        How about Bellevue and the Kemper effect? Or Wallace vs Wright Runstad. While the State initiative process can be abused it’s sometimes the only way to get the legislature to act. When there’s billions of dollars being spent by ST you don’t think maybe some of the legal and engineering firms landing contracts might be a little buddy buddy with the elected officials that are choosen to sit on the board?

      12. if you have a solution I’m all ears.

        1.) Slowing down the process can be your friend. The “Seattle Process” is what killed the R.H. Thompson Expressway. The backdoor deal for the DBT is what we got by handing power to our elected officials.

        2.) Engagement and transparency. They go hand in hand. People have to care, become informed and then battle the system. This is a David and Goliath story as the bureaucracy has endless resources (your taxes) and they both make and enforce the rules.

        3.) A healthy dose of skepticism boarding on cynicism. Just because it’s the government doesn’t mean they are here to help you. Local officials are bottom feeders starting out just hoping to solicit enough donations to get elected. But politics is like baseball. You start out in the minors and work your way up to AAA (State politics). But you’re never going to get called up to the majors unless you prove you can “play ball”.
        4.) Term limits. An appointed Commissioner in Bellevue can only serve two terms. Council Members are almost like Supreme Court judges. Same thing with State legislators. Two terms in either house and your out. At the national level one term for US Senators.

        Here’s the teaser though: secret ballots.

        I’m not sure where you’re going with that but the money decisions in local politics are land deals that are decided in closed door quasi-judicial sessions. I’m not sure where more secrecy is the answer.

      13. 1) Hoping to slow down the process is like hoping to slow down a machine that makes broken springs. You still end up with broken springs. Fix the machine or get a new one.

        4) See 1). Making sure you’re always supplied with fresh politicians that haven’t figured out what they’re doing is not a recipe for success.

        Re: Secret ballots. It sounds counterintuitive, but remove all records of how people vote and you remove the incentive for those with bribe money. Politicians could promise anything in the world to a moneyed interest, but there would be no proof in the end it wasn’t all just words. With no reward for voting in line with corruption, the politicians might as well start voting their conscience.

      14. [Bailo] That’s the problem. You’re giving up professionals that understand the issues in depth, and substituting millions of laymen that know little more than soundbites. It’s like having a room full of kindergardeners deciding how to build a house. You start out with drawings of waterslides and ball pits, and end up with lumber nailed together without function just as the snow starts to fall.

      15. 1) Hoping to slow down the process is like hoping to slow down a machine that makes broken springs.

        Depends, could be more like turning off the water until you can get a plumber. Or treating the symptoms of MS even though we don’t have a cure. Re broken springs, it’s a union shop, not allowed to stop production so you just cut your loses using your available options.

        4) See 1). Making sure you’re always supplied with fresh politicians that haven’t figured out what they’re doing is not a recipe for success.

        Depends on how you define “figuring it out”. See #3. New doesn’t mean incapable unless you believe establishing a network so that you can cut backroom deals is how politics should work. Planning commissioners are well prepared to run for city council. City councils can be training grounds for county council, etc. Maria Cantwell never ran for office before becoming a state senator and was effective from the get go. She could have been more effective if she didn’t have to battle the good ole boys club in the Senate. Nationally it seems that congress is constantly in campaign mode. Ironically it’s now the lame duck session where there’s the best chance of actually passing a budget.

        Re: Secret ballots. It sounds counterintuitive, but remove all records of how people vote and you remove the incentive for those with bribe money.

        Not buying it, see #3. More likely they are going to vote the interests of those that paid to get them elected. Even city council races are expensive to run. Money buys influence. People don’t cough up $2000 for a lunch because the food is so good. I don’t see allowing politicians to publicly say one thing and then hide how they actually vote being a good thing.

        With no reward for voting in line with corruption, the politicians might as well start voting their conscience.

        The only way to remove the reward is to stiffen campaign finance laws and increase the degree of public disclosure.

      16. Why would anyone pay for a vote, if they have no way of knowing how you voted? Why would you vote for the wealthy donor, when you can’t prove to them you voted their way? Backroom deals become useless, since it’s now just the word of a politician – and there’s no way of knowing if they’re telling the truth even after the vote.

        Campaign finance rules are unconstitutional (sadly). Public disclosure has a thousand loopholes no matter how you set it up, short mounting a videocamera on every senator.

      17. Why would anyone pay for a vote, if they have no way of knowing how you voted? Why would you vote for the wealthy donor,

        Most likely because the wealthy donor is going to install someone predisposed to vote their way. That is that then have a personal stake in the outcome. Why would they benevolently vote for the best interests of an uninformed or disenfranchised public that’s much easier to bamboozle? Special interests are results driven. Like I pointed out, real estate deals are done in closed door quasi-judicial session but it’s still pretty obvious who’s your buddy.

        there’s no way of knowing if they’re telling the truth even after the vote.

        There’s no way to know if a politician is ever telling the truth, See #3 :=

        Campaign finance rules are unconstitutional (sadly). Public disclosure has a thousand loopholes no matter how you set it up,

        Some campaign finance laws were found unconstitutional, like limiting how much of your own money you can spend. I find the Washington State campaign donor list very interesting reading. Limits from any one donor are good. Nothings perfect but almost everything can be improved. Income tax has a thousand loopholes but we still use it. I believe we’ve still got a long way to go on disclosure before we get to big brother is watching. What someone doesn’t tell want to tell you can be as instructive as what they do (see #3).

      18. Direct democracy requires a high level of civic involvement — to the point where people are ostracized if they *don’t* know the details of every ballot issue — and a high degree of public education and a high quality media.

        We’re missing all three in the US. And these are problems which afflict representative democracy as well as direct democracy. They need to be solved.

        But the media is the worst problem. Seattle has only one newspaper, _The Stranger_, as _The Stranger_ is happy to tell you :-) , and although blogs are trying to make up the difference, Publicola just closed.

        If every government agency had a well-provisioned and well-organized internet information portal — I personally am fond of WSDOT’s projects pages — that might be a start in terms of making it possible for people to inform themselves despite the decrepit media. The other problem — that of people being unwilling to inform themselves — remains.

    2. I’m actually amazed that more citizens aren’t fully immersed and participating in transit issues. For many reasons, transit issues are among the most pertinent and life affecting off all governmental decision making.

      For example, when you consider the costs and monies involved, they seem to far exceed almost anything except maybe education. We whine and moan over $1 million dollar programs to help fill budget gaps, but we navel gaze when it comes to multi-billion dollar construction projects.

      Also, anything that can reduce commutes or general speed of travel complete affects our life styles, costs, decisions about where to live and so on. Almost everyone should be yelling and screaming when it comes to the how, why and where of transportation.

      1. Most citizens are not immersed or participating in anything. It’s actually a frightening problem and makes it difficult to have a functional democracy.

        I’m not going to blame the citizens (well, not all of them).

        First of all, many people are simply too busy, working 18-hour days or trying to deal with our pathetic excuse for a “health care system”, to think about larger political issues.

        Second, the media is terrible, and so it’s actually genuinely difficult to inform oneself about any political issues — you certainly can’t do so by listening to radio news (not even NPR), let alone watching TV news, and I don’t think you can do so by reading the newspapers any more either.

      2. …and I guess my previous comment should lead into this one:

        Seattle Transit Blog is providing a valuable public service by making it much more possible for people in the Seattle area to inform themselves about the politics of transportation in Seattle. It’s not like anyone else is providing this public service.

  2. This is general dynamic. Just look at East Link. Now that Bellevue is part of the process, not outside of the process, they’re being constructive partners and looking for way to cut costs through elimination of some of the “extraordinary mitigation” they fought for before. I think the key with public process is to really capture the major public concerns, and address those concerns. Addressing concerns ideally is a win-win for all, but not always. In that case a good public process should inform decision making *before* decisions are made. That was my major criticism of the DBT. They made the decision before the EIS was even near completion.

    1. The DBT was an extraordinary situation: the decision to make a deep bore was made after ‘deep bore’ had been *eliminated* during the EIS process due to *fatal flaws*.

  3. You’re just unhappy they listen to my suggestions.

    Maybe if you got out more, you’d feel better.

  4. Great analysis here, especially on a site where blind opposition to the 900-car parking garage has been given full voice. Garage opposition clearly sprouts from opponents’ lack of full understanding of the overall project, and their advancement of one particular narrow interest which can loosely be called Urbanism. Yes, we should listen to these folks politely, and then let the expert planners do what’s right, and not yield to a noisy minority who don’t represent the community.

      1. And actually, I agree with you too, Matt. (Can we meet for coffee sometime?)

  5. If NIMBY-ism is so prevalent here, then why and how the hell did the tunnel that was supposed to get built through RV get quashed?

    I think that NIMBY-ism only works in certain neighborhoods. Other places the local powers that be have enormous control over what and what doesn’t happen, the local populace has zero say in matters, and eventually just give up.

    1. Anthony, there never was a “tunnel that was supposed to get built through the RV”. Early planning never got to the point of considering such a tunnel. In the mid-1990’s, the Rainier Valley community rather clearly preferred a surface alignment that would allow people riding through to see that this was a good community, to counter the negative stories of the time. Of course, by the time Sound Transit got around to building the system, some attitudes changed and a newer and louder group rose to fight the surface choice made earlier.

      1. Oh, please… I still find it laughable that residents were convinced that a tunnel would be “racist” because it would allow rich, white people to hurry through the neighborhood and avoid all their businesses.

      2. I don’t recall Rainier Valley ever asking for a surface routing. They wanted it underground or overhead. They said if you can’t build the tunnel now, build the north Link segment first and then come back to us. But north Link got stalled at the Ship Canal, and Rainier Valley was in the middle of the only remaining segment that could be built (and had the airport to ensure initial ridership). ST1 could have included a Rainier Valley tunnel but that would have raised the overall cost of the project, and they were afraid the marginal cost difference would dissuade one too many voters. So tunnels were built only in hilly areas.

        But then some ironic things happened. They found a different route under the Ship Canal that was less risky, and found enough contingency money in ST1 for the University extension. Then ST2 became a realistic possibility, with enough money for a Roosevelt tunnel which the neighborhood was screaming for (they wanted the station IMBY and underground, rather than on I-5). So ST2 got passed with a tunnel through Roosevelt, and Rainier Valley is the only residential neighborhood with a surface train. (Although Surrey Downs may be joining it.)

        So RV did want an underground train, but it was never promised so you can’t say there was “supposed to be” one.

  6. I think the problem is an expectation gap. You ask people for input, and it’s only natural they’d expect the process to respond to their input. If their input is they don’t want a project, then they expect to kill it. When it turns out they can’t stop a project, only delay it and make it cost more, then one of two things happens: they get disgruntled and lose faith in government (and there’s so much of that sentiment out there these days), or they get trained to engage in the process every time they want to, just because they can slow things down and make them cost more.

    1. Makes sense.

      I have to say people are predisposed to lack faith in government by some of the really obnoxious stuff which is totally unrelated to local transportation, such as the foreign wars which everyone wants stopped (but which keep happening).

      On the other hand, there’s also a concerted propaganda campaign to make people hostile to government, by (interestingly enough) the same group which wants to run foreign wars which everyone wants stopped; I think the plan is that if you make people hostile to the idea of government, you can create a shadow government and do whatever you like. Or something.

  7. The first challenge is when to make the participation process strategic. when it’s too early, it becomes utopian. When it’s too late, it becomes either trivial and/or defensive of what has already happened. After that, the challenge becomes how to make it strategic, as many planners approach it as if they are selling their vision rather than truly listening to what the community has to say; I’m often surprised when planners can’t envision multiple alternatives. Finally, a well-designed process can better diffuse the “big meeting attention hogs” by using small group, consensus-building sessions or information station discussions — or as a last resort, an “executive intervention” to give the “hogs” an special audience with the boss in another room while the public discussion is going on so that they don’t take over the larger meeting.

    1. This is an excellent description of the key problems in competent public participation.

      I tend to think that, if you get the participation process done at the right time (not too early, not too late), you benefit massively from engaging with the Internet. The number of people who can find time to look at stuff online and write a comment is going to be a lot larger than the number who can drag themselves to a meeting.

      Only a few agencies have managed to do public participation over the Internet “right” — advertising the current projects on their main website and putting all the information up right there. Sound Transit is one of the better ones but not ideal — information goes up late and the feedback procedure is not obvious.

      1. I think one of the problems with public participation *by meeting* is that meeting attendance and “noisemaking” end up being *horrendously* selected, well beyond ordinary levels of self-selection.

        Public *written* comment procedures do somewhat better, and those can be expanded substantially on the Internet.

      2. To forestall the obvious comment, yes I know that Internet access is unevenly distributed. The solution to that is cheap municipal Internet. In many countries Internet access is practically universal; it’s the backwards “must give monopolistic corporations more money!!!” attitude in the US which gives us such a low rate of Internet access.

  8. Our whole process when it comes to construction projects needs to be re-thought. We shouldent be mitigating every impact to the enviroment that a project brings, but the overall benefit of the project should be brought into consideration as well. If you are building clean electric public transportation, in an urban enviroment there should be little mitigation involved as most of the surfaces are impervious to begin with and adding the rail line isnt going to make a large diffrence, yet will help draw automotibles and buses off the street which will make a small diffrence in overall pollution.

  9. As Matt the Engineer states: “[Politicians] are career professionals that are paid to understand the intricacies of politics, funding, and legal constraints. Our duty is to hire the ones that are good at their jobs and agree with us about the fundamentals.”

    At a Town Hall meeting in another nearby town sometime ago, I listened to a number of retirees complain about a transit center and about Black people there. It was completely unrelated to the project at hand. Yet because they came to the Town Hall and signed up to speak, it had to be addressed. Ultimately, the project was shelved when a number of neighborhood old people signed a petition, submitted it the City Council who voted in favor of nixing the project even though it was imperative for the city. One council member voted in favor of continued funding. The project manager spent years on the project to secure funding and support. Disenfranchised, the project manager left moved out of state for another public agency.

    The public should have input regarding projects, but it also should be within reason. Public criticism should be weighted. Let’s take the SR 520 Bridge project as an example. We have Madison Park and a community organization that wants a four lane bridge because they cherish their views. So let’s ask:

    * Do they use the bridge regularly?
    * What benefit would have get from reduced capacity on the bridge?
    * Why should regular users that don’t live in Madison Park have to suffer from reduced capacity on the bridge?
    * Transit capacity is being reduced to stave costs. People don’t want to ride crowded buses so they are opting to drive their personal vehicles. Why ride a dirty old bus when I can drive my Acura, BMW, Lexus or Audi?

    Then you have the greater regional questions. The people that live in Seattle that commute to Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, or Sammamish via the bridge.
    * What improvements would you like to see on the SR 520 corridor?

    I think there needs to be a compromise of the users opinions as well as the nearby residents. The public opinion sessions are poorly planned. They are almost always selected to take place where facility users are often not located. Though the project team may try to time it for commuters, most commuters are too tired or don’t have the time to make their voices heard. …but where residents may be impacted by the project at hand, they come in droves to voice their opinions. Unfortunately, the NIMBYs often win.

  10. “allowing a disproportionate amount of power to be consolidated into the hands of a few:”

    Power has been and will always be in the hands of the few. From the few who show up to comment at public participation forums to the few who successfully run for public office to the minority who actually get out and vote for things like ST1 and ST2. We that read this blog are the few and even fewer are thoughs who comment on it.

    “disproportionate amount of power” is in the eye of the beholder. If you are in agreement with those that wield it then its good. If you are in disagreement with it then its bad.

  11. So, the not so public process that got us the Deeply Bored Tunnel should have been allowed to have occurred without some form of public accountability?

    Good grief!

  12. I think public input matters. It’s important that the will of the people be respected.

    Yes, things take way too long to get done. They do. For instance, perhaps there are too many meetings. There is too much insistence on having some “hearing examiner” make a call instead of elected officials having a safety switch over that hearing examiner in an emergency – at least we in Skagit County learned the hard way of its importance.

    But at the end of the day, it is better in a democracy that we the people get a veto and cast an informed vote. After all, we all know of way too many Democrats and yes, Republicans who are bought and paid for – or worse yet, of – special interests such as the government unions, the builder’s associations, the realtors, etc.

  13. Aside from identifying and forcing the prevention or mitigation of direct, unequivocal externalities, public input should have no influence in the permitting of a project conducted on private property with private financing.

    Big picture issues like traffic, noise, greenspace, schools, height limits, and permissible uses should be dealt with by elected officials on a community-wide basis rather than being fought out permit by permit.

  14. Metro service change proposals are a perfect example of what happens when you take public input too seriously. Anytime you attempt to re-allocate resources, there are inevitably going to be some winners and some losers. There may be a lot more winners than losers, but it’s always the losers, not the winners, that are going to take the time and trouble to show up to public meetings and complain. Especially when a lot of the winners are people who don’t even ride the bus today because it’s too slow or infrequent. People who aren’t regular transit users right now are probably not keeping up with Metro service change proposals, and therefore, for sure aren’t going to attend meetings and comment, no matter how much the change would benefit.

    I’ve seen this with the debates about the 2, 37, 42, and other routes. While I generally like public input, this has made me wonder.

      1. First, you have to determine if Facebook access represents a meaningful cross-section of the Citizens you’re serving.

        I’ll bet not.

      2. Bought in at the top hey? Anything that requires the degree of public disclosure Farce Book does should not be part of the public process. Survey Monkey is way over used. It’s a crock that’s easily perverted. As someone on this blog commented; it’s not rocket surgery. King County is pretty good about mailing out property tax bills. Mail out surveys from that data base. No, it doesn’t reach renters. Other laws protect renters but in general they’re not going to be the ones that get involved anyway. Long before the condo craze there were coops that allowed people to rent but hold a stake in where they lived.

      3. Renters are not going to be involved? Who do you think fills the buses in the areas with the highest ridership (U district and Capitol Hill).

      4. OK, mail it out to every residential zoned address. Then it’s one “ballot” per household and census information makes it easy to weight per person and/or per wage earner. People who care about transit all get an equal voice instead of the discussion getting derailed by a few who seem to have nothing better to do than attend public meetings and deliver the same performance night after night.

  15. All too often the blame should be placed on the agencies conducting the public process. I attend way too many public meetings for a variety of issues and projects. The flawed processes with the angriest people seem to happen when the public outreach is an afterthought or comes after key decisions have already been made. That’s not inclusive, friendly, or really very transparent.

    And when it’s an afterthought, little time is spent actually explaining anything to attendees or facilitating real input — instead you get a bunch of boards and easels and comments captured individually on a sheet of paper and questions answered one-on-one.

    The greatest outreach examples I have seen involved developers who reached out to neighbors from the very beginning and actually included public input in their planning or a city department which took the time to put together well-designed handouts or a short but detailed PowerPoint presentation to explain the need for a proposal.

    1. The Tube was mostly private, but it did have to get approval from the notoriously undemocratic Metropolitan Board of Works.

      The NYC Subway was an election campaign issue. There was little participation in the late stages, but nobody could claim they hadn’t had a chance to discuss it, since it was a huge election issue. In fact, the question of the actual alignment was fought out in the courts. Sound familiar?

  16. I’m reminded of the first scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent finds a bulldozer about to knock his house down and is told the plans were on display in his local planning office, in a locked filing cabinet in a basement with no stairs and no light and a sign reading “Beware of the Leopard”.

    More seriously, it would be an interesting study to find at what point in the process public input has the most value, in terms of actually providing information (even when you would pejoratively call it NIMBY information, because those people are the most directly affected and most motivated to provide input). I am reminded of the Nickels administration “final” decision to move Summer Nights on the Pier to Gas Works Park, without any public input and timing it at exactly the same point as construction on the Fremont Bridge (somewhat relevant to traffic going to Gas Works by whatever means), including the re-route of the closest bus route to 40th Street, six blocks uphill from Gas Works.

  17. To understand NIMBYism you always need to look at the past and the “common knowledge” of the majority. To George Curtis, who led the “Save Our Valley” campaign for tunneling, which almost killed light rail through Rainier Valley, this train was just another big, bad, ugly urban renewal project like he’d seen in New York City. And the fact that rich Capital Hill would get an expensive tunnel was to him proof of discrimination against the poor in Rainier Valley. He didn’t understand how light rail and its funding is designed to work (tunneling = a rare exception, vs heavy rail), or that tunneling under a community could actually be worse than a major improvement on the surface (MLK today), nor that urban designers have learned a great deal from the fiascos back east, nor that good transit and transit oriented development are becoming extremely valuable as the fossil fuel bonanza peaks and heads into decline, taking economic growth with it.

    1. There’s a difference between being for a tunnel and being against anything against a tunnel. Save Our Valley was so against anything except a tunnel that they became anti light rail. Even now there are SOVers who refuse to ride Link, and have switched to driving because the 106 was “ruined”, or take buses rather than Link. But SOV does not speak for everyone in Rainier Valley, and there are people who preferred a tunnel but would rather have a surface train than nothing.

  18. One thing that could increase general participation and decrease the outliers would be the use of Social Media.

    For example, we still use Social Media only for communications. We post an announcement about a meeting that people have to go to. We have Seattle Transit Blog where many participate and debate and contribute even…but is it tied into the bureaucratic machinery?

    No…what people really want is Second Wave social media where things like public participation in transit and planning decisions starts to carry weight.

    1. Nothing’s stopping the government from setting up discussion forums and online polls, and some cities are getting heavily into e-government. But then you hit the wall of the decision-makers. What makes you think that a government discussion forum or poll would influence their decision-making more than the input at existing public meetings and private forums like STB do? There are officials and staff in all the agencies that read STB and know what we think. The difference between that and a public-comment period is that they don’t have to formally acknowledge STB input or respond to it or put it into an official record. But STB still has some influence anyway — not decisive but not nothing either — and it’s not clear that an official forum would have any more or less influence. In both cases the decision-makers have to consider that the respondents are a self-selected subset of the community, maybe representative and maybe not.

      1. If the decision makers want to do a good job for everyone, they will listen to thoughtful, well-informed complaints and criticisms, and should be interested in anything which will make it easier to get such information.

        And as long as the decision-makers are elected, we can *hope* that people will elect the ones who want to do a good job for everyone and kick out the ones who don’t. (Possibly a vain hope. Sigh.)

        I think a key point is that Seattle *has* STB, and STB *has* open comment sections. Many cities *don’t* have any equivalent of STB, and would benefit a lot more from aggressive government outreach.

  19. Let’s not forget that ‘trained professionals’ and ‘expert planners’ would have built many many more freeways across Seattle, as well as replace the Pike Place Market with a…well, it’s too horrible to think about.

    That’s not to dismiss the relevance of expertise and knowledge on the issues at hand, in the slightest. We need folks who are experts in the field. But to pretend that the public won’t get involved when they disagree, or that the public can be safely ignored, is IMO foolish.

    As to the current public process – of course there are issues. Every public process has issues; rules that were put in place to try to prevent past problems can create their own new ones. I just watched a County in another state go through a purchasing process wherein they got three bids from the same vendor – for software they really wanted and for which there was no effective substitute. But the rules insisted on three bids. So they got one with training and support, one with just support, and one that was just the software itself.

    My point is, fix the issues with the process and recognize the need for the process isn’t going away.

    1. Pike Place Market was saved, did you not get the memo? Pike Place could have been completely replaced by office buildings. That would have been a horror. I don’t see how you can call the current situation anything like a horror. It may be less than some ideal but it’s thriving well right now, and few cities have anything equivalent. The robust ambience and large crowds don’t seem much different to me now than in the 1980s.

      In fact, it seems more integrated into the local community than it was then. Locals have returned to shopping for food there, after having deserted it for decades due to rip-off prices and bait-and-switch (the good fruit on display but the bad fruit in your bag). The merchants seem to have reformed, and now let you choose your own fruit and the prices are competitive. Plus with more people living downtown, and the improvement levies that have probably given people more of a sense of ownership in the Market.

      In short, Pike Place is doing well right now. I think it lost the last maintenance levy, so there may be some infrastructure work coming up, but other than that I don’t see what’s wrong with it.

      In fact, its robust ambience and large crowds don’t seem much different to me than in the 1980s. does not seem much different to me than in the 1980s. In fact, it seems locals have returned to shopping there for food, and its robust ambience does not seem much different from

      1. Mike I think he’s referring to the proposal from the 60s that would have resulted in most of the Market being demolished in the name of urban renewal. Those proposals (in modified form) were approved by the mayor and city council before being overturned by voters. The point I got from JohnS’s post is that sometimes the people we elect or appoint to make land use and transportation decisions can be dead wrong.

      2. I think the extreme example of the voters being “ahead of the government” comes from Switzerland, where there was a consensus among all the parties to build more roads. The voters, in the land of direct democracy, voted down the road building, voted down the proposal for heavier trucks, passed the Convention on the Protection of the Alps, and then passed one of the most expensive passenger rail expansion program ever. The politicians, after about a decade, listened and caught up.

  20. Part of the problem is that a lot of policies are hashed out in the ivory tower by wonks and requires wonky knowledge to even make sense of. The only way the changes to the 2 made any sense is if you regularly followed Human Transit and/or STB. For everyone else, it’s hard if not impossible to explain it in a way that makes any sense, and even then you could be forgiven for thinking Metro was out to make the system as inconvenient as their riders were willing to take in the name of “efficiency”. It didn’t help that the changes were being made on behalf of people not involved in the process and that might not even exist now, yet if the public outreach was carried out citywide accusations of carpetbagging would fly. That’s another problem, our nationwide culture that actively discourages looking out for anyone but ourselves.

    While we should be building an understanding of the principles underlying the changes to the 2 if we want to push through our preferred changes to service in Capitol Hill and North Seattle later, there are people called “experts” for a reason. We can’t expect everyone to have in-depth knowledge of every issue. We need to find a way to allow people to trust experts while having a way to protect them from the use of “expertise” against them or – more difficultly – the potential flaws in their field’s conventional wisdom.

  21. Take the example of the proposed changes for Metro Route 2: if the informed people who comment on this blog would also participate in their community organizations the outcome could be different. Why withhold your expertise and skill from your neighborhood organization or community council and talk only to each other on-line? Or worse, complain about the result when the public participation process is driven by the uninformed. If just a few of you would help out instead of criticizing after the fact it would be not hard to imagine policy makers (the County Council) receiving a very different message.

  22. I think it is a critical flaw of our society that we all think our opinions are so important and should matter. They usually aren’t and they probably don’t.

  23. This is why electing public officials with the mindset that “public participation” is just one input to their decision-making is so important!

    I’ve seen public officials who used public comment as the sole basis of their decision-making, which I feel is incorrect. This can be ceding the decision to a handful of people or even a municipality whose officials show up “en masse.” I’ve also seen folks commenting who get angry when a decision-maker speaks against what the majority of those who commented said, thinking that their majority (showing up) rules. Still other cases where the public input is seen by decision makers as checking off a requirement on a list. While respect to every individual is crucial, it’s still a fact that those offering comment are a tiny percentage of the population as well as a small percentage of the population that cares – and makes the effort to attend a meeting (and doesn’t have a work or other conflict). If it’s verbal comments being taken, these are folks who have mustered up the courage to speak in a public setting, in some cases being televised, and the 2 minutes typically offered is not enough time to present a cogent case, either. Three minutes should be the minimum, and decision-makers should be able to ask clarifying questions of the speaker. The main benefit that I see of public comment, and as a former decision maker I went into a decision open-minded, save one or two obvious times, oft-times citizens brought up issues, aspects of issues, or creates the avenue to other considerations that policy-makers, some of whom routinely arrive to meetings without ever reading their packets, never thought of.

    That’s why it’s important for agencies/governments to offer as much transparency to what they’re considering as possible while offering their citizenry – and publicizing it extremely well – in-person and non options to contribute to the thought process. It’s also prudent, where affordable and the issue big enough, for the agencies/governments to survey a random sample of their customers and sometimes non. An error that I see in sampling, though, is the person who rides the bus and hands out surveys, which – similar to public meetings – only some bother to fill out, as they’re either thinking of their day ahead or everything they have to do at home or just want to take a nap or read a book or whatever. In these instances, again the range of ways to contribute needs to be wide, including well-publicized, i.e., large font size on the printed survey, with a lot of white space around it) online as well as offline ways to contribute. Yet, again, I see agency staff presenting results from the kind of survey where the paper survey is handed out on a bus as if they are “the gospel,” i.e. failing to add the caveat that these are results of riders who chose to offer feedback and it’s not a scientific sample. And, with such surveys, one regularly sees timid decision-makers who ask for – and look to – the staff to tell them what the results of the survey was to give them cover for making a decision (based on the survey’s result).

    Bottom-line: it’s up to the citizens to elect – and re-elect – officials who view the public input as an important element of their decisions, but still have the courage to recognize it as just that – an element. It’s also up to us to ensure that these elements are presented as parts of what should be considered.

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