From community participation then … to community exclusion today

1 December 2013
As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect's events, such as this "open house", has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

As democratic involvement and real meetings have disappeared, public participation at Project Connect’s events, such as this “open house”, has withered. Photo: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

This posting has been excerpted, adapted, and expanded from a personal Email sent by the author to someone involved with Austin’s urban rail study, in response to an inquiry.

The lack of bona fide democratic discussion and participation by the public has been seen by many in the Austin community as an ongoing problem with Project Connect’s “community outreach” and “public participation” procedures. However, the current problem merely continues and intensifies a policy tendency, over approximately the last dozen or so years, among some local Austin-area public bodies — particularly involved with transportation and urban planning issues — to discourage and suppress authentic community involvement in planning such proposed projects and services.

This stands in stark contrast to the vibrant, lively public involvement of the 1970s through early 2000s, where popular input was encouraged and solicited in the form of participatory community meetings and personal involvement of a widely representative array of individuals in actual planning committees.

Finding a suitable model for implementing true democratic discussion today in Project Connect and other programs would be simple — reinstating the types of outreach, public participation programs, and community discussion activities that were typical of Austin-area transportation planning up until the early 2000s. These types of participatory processes have gradually been attenuated in recent years.

A fully democratic and effective process of community participation and discussion is essential, particularly so that community participants feel they have true involvement, engagement, and a stake in the planning process. At least as important, critical planning issues are effectively scrutinized and analyzed, and additional professional expertise (in architecture, engineering, planning, finance, etc.) in the community is accessed and brought to bear on various aspects of the project.

Almost certainly, the lack of such oversight and engagement of community expertise has been a major factor in the array of serious methdological and data problems that have characterized Project Connect’s urban rail study process and impugned its credibility. See, for example, the wide range of problems and community discontent documentted in this blog’s recent posting TILT! Project Connect’s gerrymandering and data fiddling ignite public skepticism, pushback.

Public participation process of the past

Ongoing citizen advisory committees used to be (and should be now) much larger, with multiple members typically appointed by each councilmember, Capital Metro board member, etc. In the late 1980s, Capital Metro’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee involved over a hundred members, with at least several dozen typically attending a given meeting. Professionals with transit-industry expertise and community activists on transportation issues were often appointed to these bodies, rather than specifically excluded, as they are now.

My longtime friend and professional colleague Dave Dobbs and I served on several such committees through the development of the regional transportation plan by the Austin Transportation Study (precursor to CAMPO) and the creation of Capital Metro (we both served on the Austin-Travis County Mass Transportation Commission that recommended creation of a regional transit authority for the Austin metro area). Another particularly important example of our community participation involvement was the advisory committee to the Transitway Corridor Analysis Project (TCAP), in the late 1980s. The TCAP committee had at least several dozen members, including interested stakeholders like Alan Kaplan and Roger Baker, and met regularly with the Capital Metro personnel and consultants directly involved with evaluating either a busway or light rail transit (LRT) for a fixed transit line from the core area to the northwest, possibly using U.S. 183, the railway alignment, I-35, or a combination of these alignments.

The democratic involvement of highly interested and technically savvy community members was critical to the final outcome of the TCAP study. Dave and I and other committee members questioned or challenged assumptions and methodology point by point, in a democratically interactive process that altered the course of the study. The original intent had seemed to be to justify a busway in this corridor, and if this had prevailed, buses would probably be rolling along through Crestview, Wooten, and other neighborhoods on a paveway in the Capital Metro railway right-of-way today instead of MetroRail DMU railcars. But instead, the advisory committee and consultants ultimately recommended LRT, and this was selected by the board as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

Trend from democratic involvement to “democratic” pretense

There has been nothing comparable to this kind of democratic community interactive planning within roughly the past decade.

Community meetings have likewise virtually disappeared. I recall open, fully democratic meetings, with large attendance, in various areas of the Capital Metro service area when I was on the authority’s board during the original LRT study in the early 1990s. Board members like me, and top officials like General Manager (CEO) Tony Kouneski, would attend these meetings. Participants weren’t just given clickers to respond to the contrived choices presented by Capital Metro — they were free to voice their opinions, ask questions, even respond to other views expressed in the meetings. New views, new options, could be voiced. The community members learned things from one another and felt a far greater sense of involvement in the process that is totally missing today.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect's events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

Real community meetings, such as this one focused on transit options in Toronto, allow free and open discussion and facilitate questions and comments from the attendees. In contrast, Project Connect’s events have squelched community discussion and sought to manage and muzzle discussion. Photo: Torontoist.

During the LRT study process in 1999-2000, numerous small community meetings were held all over the city to explain the LRT plan and alternatives, and receive real input, freely voiced, from the community. Then-General Manager Karen Rae herself typically led these meetings, usually accompanied by one or more staff personnel. This interaction helped fine-tune the eventual alignment that was proposed.

Even after the LRT referendum narrowly failed, in 2001-2003 democratic public meetings continued, involving both smaller meetings around the city and larger public meetings, including charettes. Attendees had the opportunity to speak, voicing comments or criticism and asking questions, at all meetings.

Workshops in past periods previously were far different and more democratic than the recent ones sponsored by Project Connect. The groups, often subdivided by particular topics, would discuss an issue for perhaps 20-40 minutes. A participant was also free to visit other groups at other tables and inject comments, suggestions, etc. Each table group (“workshop”) would select one member to summarize the group’s conclusions, or controversial issues, to the entire meeting in a summation period. Individual group members had a chance to clarify points covered in the discussion.

In contrast, Project Connect’s recent “workshops” seemed more like mechanisms to contain and squelch discussion rather than facilitate it. Discussion was confined to each individual small group, for perhaps 5-10 minutes at most. Only very narrow topics — basically, “choices” presented by Project Connect — were presented for discussion within each table group … with no real opportunity for alternatives and questions to be presented. Project Connect staff members, present at each table, then filtered and briefly summarized some of the discussion to the larger group.

Similarly, “open houses” are not public “meetings” but mechanisms to fragment and granularize public involvement into one-to-one interactions with project representatives, who can “listen” and then rationalize official decisions to individual participants. Attendees are expected to wander through the room, viewing the results of project decisions previously made by the project bureaucracy, results that are typically presented with lots of graphics — prompting me to describe these as “art galleries”. But these are definitely not democratic community meetings. See:

Back to “art galleries” Project Connect reneges on community meetings

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

In contrast to the Transit Working Group (TWG) meetings, which at least allowed a few 3-minute “citizen communications” at the end of each meeting, Project Connect abolished even such minimal community input at meetings of its successor, the Central Corridor Advisory Committee (CCAG), until the last one before Project Connect made its decision on urban rail sectors. In other words, CCAG could not formally be presented with alternative views, ideas, and proposals, or criticism of the official methodology, throughout the critical period when decisions were being made and ratified by CCAG.

In sum, Project Connect’s overall “public involvement” exercises have seemed more like a gesture at public involvement as a CYA effort to fulfill federal requirements.

Outline for bona fide community participation program

What would a more truly democratic public involvement program look like? For starters, here are some thoughts, based on examples and experience from the past:

• A general advisory group that is large and inclusive, with representatives appointed by all councilmembers, Capital Metro board members, and possibly other public bodies — rather than a small group hand-picked by the mayor. This advisory committee would also be able to co-opt additional members to itself. It would provide a forum to consider both official proposals and alternative proposals and ideas from the community, while seeking a consensus with the official project team.

• Numerous smaller meetings (covering several sectors with several neighborhood areas per sector) at least every couple of months, where participants could voice their alternative ideas, concerns, questions, criticisms, and other comments to the meeting group — thus sharing and disseminating alternative views and approaches within the general community as well as among project staff.

• At least a couple of charettes, open to the public at large, over the course of the project. These would focus on key issues particularly needing public input. The emphasis would be on the voicing of ideas and assessments, not just clicking choices among prescribing alternatives.

Major public meetings, every 3-4 months, in a “hearing” format, where community members could at least have a chance to voice their views.

In contrast with this kind of open process from past times, the new model of “public involvement” by public agencies, exemplified by Project Connect’s process, seems designed mainly to muzzle the public, procure some kind of very shallow public acquiescence for official decisions, and thus allow project officials to claim validation. It also ensures that officials can proceed with planning effectively isolated and insulated from democratic community scrutiny and input — thus (as I’ve characterized it) operating “inside a bell jar”.

Neighborhood groups and other community organizations need to make it clear they’ve had enough of this sham pretense at “public participation”. They need to demand a reinstatement of at least the level of democratic participation that was the norm in the past.


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