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Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process

1 October 2013

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In ARN’s previous blog entry, Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings, we noted that “In a sudden reversal — and what appears to be a breach of trust and a breach of a de facto agreement with many in the Austin community”, Project Connect (the current ongoing rail planning consortium) had abruptly changed its forthcoming Urban Rail Central Corridor public involvement events from meetings into so-called “Open Houses”.

Our commentary went on to point out that

Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.

It should be noted that Project Connect is also deploying other means of communication with the public, in addition to “open house” events — a webinar was held this past Friday, and project staff are also considering workshop-style small-group activities. Plus the team are outreaching through individual meetings with various community groups.

However, while these are worthy activities, they still don’t substitute for the fully democratic process inherent in full, multi-group, diverse community meetings. To repeat our previous observations: Community meetings enable community interactive input; they “bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner.”

Project Connect, the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other public agencies have a crucial responsibility to facilitate these kinds of cross-community, cross-demographic, cross-organizational, fully diverse, fully democratic public meetings. So far, they seem to be trying to avoid them like the flu.

Austin Rail Now will continue to support efforts to reinstate the truly democratic public meeting process as Project Connect moves forward with its planning activities.

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