Is Goal 1 Obsolete?

Statewide Planning Goal # 1:

To develop a citizen involvement program that insures the opportunity
for citizens to be involved in all phases of the planning process.

[read the rest of the goal text here (PDF, 12K)]

There seems to be a difference of opinion about what this means in the context of the “Big Look” review of the statewide land use planning system. As reported on OPB 1000 Friends of Oregon Executive Director Bob Stacy and Metro President (and Big Look task force member) David Bragdon seem to have slightly different views about citizen input in the Big Look work plan:

Stacy says the state should be talking to fewer interest groups and instead holding meetings across Oregon. Bragdon counters that not all public involvement is helpful.

David Bragdon: “I think a lot of so-called citizen involvement in Oregon today is actually being dominated by non-representative, self-appointed narrow special interests. I think the task force is really interested in understanding the experience of people who actually doing things in the land-use system or dealing with the system – a lot of whom won’t show up at a hearing. So we’re trying to get beyond the special interests and get a broader cross-section.”

[Disclaimer: I am both a member of 1000 Friends and collaborate with them on projects through the Coalition for a Livable Future. And I was also appointed as a citizen representative on the Metro Policy Advisory Committee by President Bragdon.]

This has an interesting parallel in the “New Look” process at Metro for updating our regional land use and transportation plans. Metro’s “Regional Forums” seem to be aimed at the “stakeholder groups” (players in the system) while Metro plans to conduct polling to find out what “average citizens” think.

Taking a cynical view, I might wonder if this translates into two target audiences: groups that might run an initiative campaign against an outcome they don’t like and the voters that would vote on such initiatives. A more charitable view is that Metro has recognized that the old paradigms are not working and is trying new techniques.

But what about those citizens who will actually come out and participate in planning processes just for the sake of making their communities better? Are we being squeezed out of the process? Are we assumed to be just another interest group?

I take this a little bit personally, as I have sometimes been characterized as a “professional citizen activist” [although I derive no part of my income from my activism]. I understand that in many planning processes I’m one of the “same old faces” and I applaud Metro’s efforts to involve more people, even if only in a representative poll. But still I can’t help feeling a little devalued by the discussion that seems to be happening about citizen involvement at both the state and regional levels. After all, those “same old faces” are often the people who have been involved long enough and deeply enough to actually have a informed perspective on the issues.

Does Goal 1 need to be rewritten to deal with the post-Bowling Alone era? Is the traditional citizen involvement process old hat? How do we engage citizens now? Are there “citizens” left out there, or just a public that sees themselves as consumers of government services?

[Shameless plug: I am hosting one of the City Club’s Citizen Salons which will feature David Bragdon and Lake Oswego Mayor Judie Hammerstad (another Big Look task force member). Join us for brunch in August and discuss this issue with them directly.]


2 responses to “Is Goal 1 Obsolete?”

  1. Recent years have seen several examples of “public involvement” that people like Bragdon and Stacy insist on ignoring.
    * In 1998, Portland-area voters rejected further funding for light rail and an expanded convention center. Metro built/is building both anyway.
    * In 2000, Oregon voters approved measure 7, which Stacy’s group fought;
    * In 2002, Portland-area voters overwhelmingly approved a measure forbidding further densification, yet Bragdon and Stacy both favor densification;
    * In 2004, most Portland-area voters supported measure 37, which Stacy and Bragdon wish would just go away.

    It doesn’t matter who is involved or what the forum is. All Stacy and Bragdon want is to hear from the people who agree with them.

  2. “I think the task force is really interested in understanding the experience of people who actually doing things in the land-use system or dealing with the system – a lot of whom won’t show up at a hearing.”

    I think David is right. The truth is that the typical citizen has almost no political or economic clout. So in the context of decisions, their advice is gratuitious and often at odds with political realities.

    The result is a huge amount of work, and expenditure of political capital, on proposals that have no real hope of being adopted. Witness the alternatives to a new I-5 bridge. The reality is that anything other than a large new freeway bridge is not acceptable to some of those who have to sign off on it to get anything built. Despite that, a large amount of time, money and energy is being spent trying to finesse an acceptable decision out of a public process that includes a number of unacceptable alternatives.

    The Sellwood bridge is another example. Anything short of a four lane bridge is unacceptable to politically powerful interests. But the neighborhood groups have effectively used the citizen participation process to drive a two lane preferred alternative. The result is a plan that can’t be built and a bridge that is falling apart.

    So if you get elected based on your ability to deliver decisions that appear reasonable to the business community and other “real” decision makers, I can see where you would be frustrated with citizen participation. The process has been delivering decisions that are eating up Metro’s political capital. That is dangerous to the individual elected officials as well as the institution.

    The vast majority of the people in Oregon, and Portland in particular, support its land use laws. They also voted for Measure 37. And most of them don’t have any interest in taking the time to resolve that conflict. So what do you do with conflicting advice. How does it help you get to a resolution? I think it does, but it is a lot of work and not the kind of thing that builds political careers.

    “portland area voters rejected further funding for light rail”.

    Everyone, including you, knows that isn’t the case. The voters in the region turned down a specific bond measure for a specific light rail project. And that project is not being built.

    The projects that are being built have the support of at least some of people who lead opposition to the bond measure. But, in any case, they are different projects. The claim that there was ever some global vote on “further funding for light rail” is simply false.

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