I haven't been much involved with the debate over whether Salem needs a third bridge over the Willamette River. I've read newspaper stories, followed posts on the always-interesting Salem Breakfast on Bikes blog, and talked with people who have some insider perspectives on what's going on.
However, I was pretty much a blank slate when I fired up CCTV's stream of Monday's City Council meeting, which featured a continuation of a public hearing on the Third Bridge Project. It took about an hour and a half to get to that agenda item, which struck me as bad form.
Lots of people were there to get three minutes before a microphone to offer up how they felt about the costly project (over $600 million I believe, with solid funding sources unspecified). Most of them had to go to work the next day. Most, I assume, had gotten to the council meeting by when it started, 6:30 pm.
Why not schedule a special meeting where this was the only agenda item? I didn't watch every minute of the testimony; seemed like it continued for over two hours. So some people who wanted to testify had to sit there from 6:30 pm until after 10:00 pm. The City could have made it easier on them.
Assuming the City of Salem really wants to hear from the public at public hearings. I didn't come away feeling this is the case. Admittedly, part of my impression was influenced by conversations I've had with people who have considerable experience with the City's public hearings.
"Decisions are already made before the meeting," they tell me. "City of Salem staff and elected officials don't care what the public has to say. They politely thank people for testifying, but don't give a rip about their testimony if it conflicts with the predetermined planned outcome."
I heard quite a bit at the April 22 City Council meeting to support that point of view. Early on, someone read a letter from a woman who couldn't attend the hearing, yet wanted to share her frustrations with the City's public participation process in the Third Bridge Project.
It was deeply moving.
I recall that she'd been involved in Salem civic affairs for more than fifty years. She said that she had never encountered anything so shameful as how the City treats ordinary citizens who want to provide input into a project that will displace many homes and businesses, and forever change the character of Salem.
Other people made similar comments. All opponents of the bridge. None of the "Chamber of Commerce types" (a loose term, yet one which predicted quite well what a testifier who fit that description was going to say) had any problems with feeling heard by City staff or elected officials.
Opponents did. And this is a management problem the City Council, Mayor, and City Manager should address. Good decisions happen when all points of view are seriously considered. I mean, seriously. A smile and a "thank you for your testimony" doesn't cut it.
I've been an Executive Service manager in state government. I've been the executive director of a non-profit health policy organization that did groundbreaking work here in Oregon and stimulated similar efforts across the country. And I completed the course requirements for a Ph.D. in Systems Science.
Salem is a complex system. Land use and transportation patterns are complex systems. The values, goals, and life styles of area residents blend, interact, and communicate in complex systemic ways.
Governmental decision-makers need to have their eyes, ears, and minds wide open during public hearings and other opportunities where they are able to gather information on a proposal like the Third Bridge. I heard lots of specific, detailed, factual testimony that made me think, "Wow, great points; the City really needs to consider this."
However, I'm betting that what's been said at the public hearings will make very little difference in how the Third Bridge planning proceeds. Echoing the aforementioned woman's testimony, that's a shame.
It's a shame because I'm idealistic enough to believe that public servants, paid or volunteer, should actually serve the public. (Yeah, I know, that's a shocking idea in these days of political cynicism.) Not themselves. Not special interests. Not the voting bloc which elected them.
Whenever I get one of our cars serviced at the dealership where we bought it, a customer satisfaction questionnaire is emailed to me. The car company seems to genuinely care about how well I was treated by staff at the dealership. If I had an unresolved problem, they want my phone number so they can talk to me about it.
I've never gotten anything similar from a government agency after sharing my views at a public hearing, and then following along to see whether my ideas seemed to have been considered by decision-makers.
I wish taxpayer-paid public servants cared half as much about how well they're serving the public as private businesses do. From what I saw at the Salem City Council hearing a few days ago, the City of Salem would be wise to do some "customer satisfaction" surveying. Then take those findings to heart.