By Alan Hirsch
The Davis City government has recently begun using facilitated community meetings as a tool to advance the City through often difficult issues. This process helps us avoid elevating issues to City Council meetings where Council representatives, after listening to divisive debates, make an on-demand decision that leaves all sides unhappy. The Police Department hosted successful facilitated community meetings in response to the anger many residents felt when they learned about the police acquisition of the Mind Resistant Armored Personnel Carrier (MRAP). For many, the MRAP raised serious concerns about a militarized police force in our community. The police forums have found a consensus to define the core issue: balancing police accountability with their freedom of action, and future meetings will make recommendations to council.
However, the facilitated meeting two weeks ago around the redesign of B Street for all users was both ineffective and divisive. Given that this meeting had the same facilitator, using the same style as the very successful police-community meetings, it behooves the community to ask “what went wrong?”
BEGIN WITH AGREED ON FACTS
The police forum began with a presentation about the MRAP “protected vehicle,” statistics on its use with SWAT teams, and firearms in the community that make it an important police tool. This presentation gave the community a common basis of facts to begin the discussion.
The B Street controversy is about how residents, drivers and bicycles can share this narrow street safely and conveniently. The City of Davis Public Works Department (Public Works), which organized the meeting, presented no information about traffic or bicycle usage, the number of homes affected, (about 14), alternate bike/car routes, and available parking. All of this factual information would have helped inform the public discussion.
MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS THERE
You cannot build consensus unless all participants affected by the issue are at the table and have an opportunity to participate in the discussion. The City’s outreach on an issue prior to a community meeting is a crucial step to the success of the public participation. After making a document request and finally resorting to a phone call with Public Work, I learned that even though Public Works had over two months to prepare for the meeting, there was no written plan to get broad community input. In fact, I learned that the only outreach to the greater community consisted of two things:
- A 3 line notice in the Enterprise
- A posting on the small NEXTDOOR email list.
Public Works’ outreach to the organized bicycle groups was one meeting with one advocate. There were no posters at the three schools affected by the B Street issues, the Davis Public Library, or any direct contact made with the two churches on B Street. Public Works also did not put up any signs (as realtors do) to notify casual users of B Street about the community meeting.
Public Works did do a thorough job of distributing flyers to every single home and apartment on B-Street and its side streets, thereby providing notice about the possibility of making existing bike lanes full-time and eliminating weekend and evening street parking. Only two B Street residents (in addition to the City Council representative who lives on B Street) showed up at the community meeting among the 35 in attendance.
TREAT EVERYONE AS EQUALS
The point of a community consensus building meeting is not just to have your views heard, but to hear others’ views. The non-attendees are not just unheard, but do not acquire an understanding of other perspectives on the issue. There is also the related concern of how those who are present do or do not represent others who are not present –even if they appear to have similar needs and interests. The Public Works facilitator seemed to assume the two residents who showed up at the meeting represented all B Street residents, and thus gave them veto power over the consensus ideas approved by the overwhelming majority of the people present at a the meeting. This rejection of the majority’s ideas was a surprising result.
LISTEN FOR NEW IDEAS
One of the ways you find win-win solutions to conflicts is to allow participants to explore new, creative outside-the-box ideas no one has thought of before. For the police forum, the facilitator quickly expanded the discussion beyond the MRAP “tank” to include ideas, such as increasing mental health services, to improve police safety. In contrast, the B Street forum was narrowed from the first minutes with a Public Works map that only showed B Street without any context of other routes bicycles and cars could take. When creative ideas were raised by participants, they were censored by the group—and often withdrawn by the person suggesting the idea with statements like “this would involve more study and just further delay a solution.” This should have been a red flag to the facilitator for two reasons. First, that these ideas were being lost….but more importantly, that some of the unhappiness experienced at the B Street meeting occurred because of a lack of trust in the City process.
LEAVE ENOUGH TIME FOR IDEAS & FEELINGS TO BE PROCESSED
The Police community consensus building was envisioned as a series of meetings, so there was a sense that there would be time to hear-out all ideas, and that even new ideas had a chance to be processed and synthesized by the group. The B Street meeting seemed to be set up by Public Works as a one night process to somehow surface a solution everyone could agree on in a 2 ½ hour time period. With the short time period, the facilitator did not allow brainstorms of solutions to begin until the last hour into the meeting, resulting in insufficient times given to really step back and look at the results and discuss the creative new ideas that were generated. Instead, the facilitator – due to time pressure — forced people into an up or down vote on the results of the raw brainstorm. And of course, when people feel rushed to agreement their bias toward solutions they know kick in, and new ideas are rejected out of hand–-ideas that might be acceptable with modification and compromise.
TREAT CITY STAFF AS PARTICIPANTS, NOT OBSERVERS
However, the biggest difference between the police forum and the B Street meeting was the approach Public Works took to the public discussion. The police leadership acknowledged how much they needed public support and how they wanted to listen and discuss changes. There was a clear sense that all present in the room, including the police staff who were sitting at the tables with the public, were learning from one another and working together with a common definition of the problem to help achieve a consensus solution.
In contrast, at the B Street meeting the seven Public Works staff in attendance held themselves apart and did not engage in dialog with the community. In the first minutes of the meeting, many members of the public expressed “frustration” “anger” and “confusion” at the City staff and their process: People asked why this meeting was happening after having attended countless other meetings on the same subject. And why hours of research about parking and bicycle safety on B Street seemed to be ignored, and why Public Works’ solutions to date were not consistent with the written City Transportation Policy. These complaints were not about the B Street issues themselves, but about how many perceived Public Works.
The City Council, City staff and Davis residents can learn from these contrasting experiences of facilitated processes. Community meetings can become the opportunity we all seek—a forum for the City of Davis staff and various stakeholders groups to work together and find common grounds across the table. The alternative is the old way: dueling public comments before a City Council meeting. To my mind, effectively staged community meetings is the way for us to move forward.