If the public spoke but nobody listened, did it really make a sound?
While this intriguing thought experiment bounces around in your head, let me offer some context:
Dallas has a lot of smart people. More than a few of those smart people get involved in city government. Let’s set aside elected officials and city staff and focus instead on the folks who step into the public square to discuss and debate city issues.
Go to a public meeting and listen. Read blog posts, message boards, social media and online news story comments about municipal matters. The level of public discourse is impressive, whether it’s neighbors analyzing the merits of a zoning case, parents discussing DISD choice schools, residents contemplating the future of Fair Park or urbanists tackling the Trinity Toll Road.
Smart public discourse has shaped and molded our city in positive ways and Dallas wouldn’t be the same without it. That’s why I find it so frustrating when the City of Dallas actively seeks public input then proceeds to totally ignore it. I will say with optimism that this pantomime of public participation is the exception, not the rule. It occurs primarily when an outside consultant is involved in crafting a “Plan” (sometimes a “Report”), usually in relation to a Very Important Issue.
The purpose of this political theater is to coat a consultant’s Plan in a sheen of legitimacy without actually having to alter The Plan in response to public input. The play looks like this: The city (or taxpayer-funded consultant) presents a pre-formed and nearly finalized Plan to the public. The city holds hearings at which members of the public can speak about The Plan. It organizes charrettes so the public can draw pictures about (and sometimes on) The Plan. It conducts online polls so millennials glued to their smartphones can thumb-type about The Plan.
Afterwards, the city thanks the citizens for their time and interest. Then, under cover of darkness, some unlucky city staffer is charged with sneaking down to the banks of the Trinity River and unceremoniously dumping all the public comments into the murky water.
When the Plan is presented to the City Council, it hasn’t changed one iota, at least not in response to public opinion. The consultant tells the council with a straight face that the public had their say. What the consultant doesn’t mention is that nobody listened.
If all of this sounds more than a little un-Democratic, you would be right. But the real problem is that the city is losing out on the tremendous intelligence of its electorate.
This was underscored to me recently when I was asked to serve on an advisory panel about the Trinity Toll Road. I was reluctant to participate because the meetings were going to be held behind closed doors and we were requested not to discuss the meetings publicly. (This is a more direct way of excluding the public.) I agreed on the condition that the meetings would be video-taped and released within weeks of our deliberations.
Going through this process without public oversight has been difficult for me, not just from a philosophical standpoint, but from a practical one: I make better decisions when the public is involved. I learn from the public discussion and ask better questions.
Over the course of our panel meetings, a popular online commenter known only as “Wylie H.” tweeted about his/her/their objection to the non-public nature of the meetings. Then Wylie H. made an observation about the radii and design speed of the meanders of the toll road.
Radii who? Design speed what? I hadn’t thought to ask those questions. But now I did. That one public comment sent me down an entirely new path of inquiry, which in turn led me to investigate the geometry of roads and research a whole host of other issues that I would not have otherwise. My conclusions were shaped by what I learned.
We’re incredibly fortunate to have smart people who care enough about our city to comment on municipal matters. We’d be wise to listen to them.
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