Showing that I'm either (1) crazy, (2) got too much time on my hands, (3) a glutton for punishment, or (4) a dedicated citizen activist blogger (I like this choice!), I just spent two hours of my remaining lifetime watching a Salem City Council work session on its strategic planning effort that was streamed live on Facebook.
One of the most interesting comments came from Mayor Chuck Bennett when he said, "I'm tired of planning" and "We don't need to sit around and talk about it."
Understand: these sentiments were expressed during a meeting of City officials who have been paying consultants a lot of money to figure out how the City of Salem should plan. which has involved a bunch of people sitting around and talking.
So that was weird.
The consultants must have felt like their heads would explode when they heard those words. But to their credit -- and maybe because it was the Mayor expressing doubts about planning -- they kept their cool and made some appropriately polite observations that didn't exactly undermine Bennett, while not exactly agreeing with him either.
Mayor Bennett mostly was talking about one of seven issue areas that emerged after a lengthy initial phase of the strategic planning process. These are the issues, which were given letters rather than numbers. Each was intended to have a Work Group develop a four page or so report about the issue.
(My scribbled notes may not reflect the exact titles, but these are close.)
A. Vision for growth and development, including the natural environment
B. Critical infrastructure and capital projects
C. Public transportation
D. Affordable housing, social services, homelessness
E. Economic development and downtown
F. Policy/planning processes within City government
G. Communication with residents
Bennett didn't see much, if any, need for a Work Group on affordable housing and homelessness because he felt that an existing City committee was doing a great job on these problems. As reflected by his "I'm tired of planning" comment, Bennett felt that whatever this committee was doing, that was all that needed to be done regarding a strategic plan in this area.
Which struck me as being highly debatable.
Former Mayor Peterson's task force on homelessness achieved essentially nothing after many meetings, from what I hear. So far I'm not aware that the homelessness/ affordable housing effort Mayor Bennett has instigated has come up with any earthshaking solutions either.
But, hey, maybe they have. Doubtful, yet possible.
My problem with what Bennett said is that the City's strategic planning effort is supposed to be looking at broad goals, or visions, to guide public policies for the next five years. It seems wrong-headed to, as one of the consultants suggested, simply take what the current homelessness/affordable housing committee is doing and call that the Strategic Vision.
What's the point of going through this whole extensive strategic planning process if what comes out at the end is what City officials are already doing? Yet this is what Bennett wanted in the area of homelessness and affordable housing.
This points to the most interesting theme at the work session that was sometimes spoken about openly, and sometimes was a undercurrent below the evident conversation:
To what extent are fresh ideas, creative visions, and major changes of direction going to be part of the final Strategic Plan?
Councilor Tom Andersen did a good job of making this theme explicit early on in the work session.
He noted that City staff picked the small group "stakeholders" who have gotten the major share of attention in the strategic planning process so far. I talked about this in "'Stakeholders' and 'Citizens' have different priorities at Salem Strategic Plan meetings," and Salem Weekly exposed the stakeholder truth in "City of Salem out of touch with identifying stakeholders."
For the January 31 meeting, the city invited 32 people it felt met this definition to participate.
• Nearly half (47%) were Republican (and 33% Democrat) in a town where Democrats hold a 9-point registration advantage over Republicans (40% to 31%) and Hillary beat Trump by 11 points (49% to 38%)
• 27% did not live in Salem but instead in Keizer, near Independence, Canby, Turner, Aurora and rural locations outside of Salem
• 43% had strong affiliations with the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce
• 30% (9 of 32) have held present or past leadership positions in the chamber. This includes past and present board members and officers, the CEO, the Executive Leadership Council and Career Achievement Network members
No Latinos, who comprise about 25% of Salem’s population, were invited to participate. Men, at 77%, were over-represented. No lower-income individuals were apparently regarded as “stakeholders,” even though 43% of Salem residents have household incomes under $40,000 a year.
Likewise, the Breakfast on Bikes blogger cogently analyzed the problems of reconciling the views of a small group of handpicked "stakeholders" with the views of a much larger group of people who attended a strategic planning open house in a post about the upcoming March 6 strategic planning work session.
To their credit, the City's consultants seemed to have realized this. Unfortunately, they realized the mistake of elevating the input of a few Chamber of Commerce types over input from the general citizenry too late.
So this is why I'm saying that the City of Salem strategic planning process is going backward. I'll illustrate this with the example of the Salem River Crossing, or Third Bridge, issue.
The Chamber of Commerce-dominated "stakeholder" group loved the idea of a half-billion-dollar Third Bridge. The 250 or so people who attended a strategic planning open house hated the idea. So how are these diametrically opposed views going to be reconciled?
Meaning -- and Mayor Bennett is correct in this regard when he says he wants to stop planning -- at some point fairly soon the City of Salem has to decide whether it is going to continue pushing for a Third Bridge as part of its long-range strategic plan.
Yet here's what the consultants proposed, and the City Council went along with, at tonight's work session:
The A-G issues I listed above are just that, issues. Amazingly, after all of the meetings, all of the conversations, all of the public input, none of that is reflected in the issues selected for further examination other than the fact that these are important issues of concern to most people.
Just about anybody in Salem could have figured out that those issues would rise to the top. ("Culture and recreation" seemingly will be another issue to be integrated with A-G.) The BIG PROBLEM isn't realizing that, say, Critical Infrastructure and Capital Projects is a concern for the future.
No, the BIG PROBLEM is deciding what kinds of critical infrastructure and capital projects should be part of Salem's future, and how much money should be spent on them. For example, dedicated bike paths and neighborhood greenways versus major street improvements and a new bridge across the Willamette?
I'd hoped that the strategic planning process would have gotten Salem closer to resolving these sorts of questions. (Another example: expand public support of the Cherriots bus system vs. allowing Uber and Lyft to operate in Salem?)
However, the consultants and Mayor Bennett kept saying that after all the talking so far, what has been accomplished is just the identification of the A-G issues to focus on further. Again, no vision or goals for the issues. Just the issue itself.
Public Transportation is an issue. Vision for Growth and Development is an issue. What to do with these and the other issues is completely open, based on what I heard at tonight's work session.
So who is going to decide the goals/vision for each issue? Well, a Work Group. And that group will consist of 1 to 3 city councilors, a couple of City staff (top managers, apparently), and 2 to 3 members of the public.
It seems obvious that a few people are going to be able to recommend what direction the City of Salem should move toward on each of the A-G issues.
Take the Third Bridge, for example.
If the Critical Infrastructure and Capital Projects work group has a majority of city councilors, staff, and public members who support the Third Bridge, then this becomes part of the draft Salem Strategic Plan. If the reverse is true, the Third Bridge is dropped.
It looks like each Work Group will have about the same number of members as the Supreme Court, nine. Thus one person could be the swing vote who decides whether a vote is 5-4 in favor, or 5-4 against a certain vision for the future.
This seems really unwise to me.
It isn't how a broadbased community planning/visioning effort should work. Other cities have engaged citizens in a much more extensive process of debate and discussion that leads, if not to a community consensus on important issues, an understanding of how most citizens feel about those issues.
Salem seems to be going in a much more elitist direction.
A few people are going to decide what the components of the Strategic Plan will consist of. Citizens then will have one chance at a June (or maybe September) open house to weigh in on the draft plan. Then, it appears that the City Council will vote on a final version.
Thus all of the preceding testimony, input, and comments from citizens to date seems to be for naught. Or at least, capable of being ignored by the nine or so people who will decide what the goal/vision is for each Work Group issue. I'm skeptical this is going to lead to a broadly accepted Salem Strategic Plan.
At the moment, it looks like more of the same: a few people getting to determine the direction of Salem in a top-down manner.