Kudos to Statesman Journal editorial page editor Dick Hughes for telling it like it is in "Why Salem projects often fail."
Download Why Salem projects often fail (PDF file to read if SJ story is archived)
A common thread runs through Salem, from the old Boise Cascade property across downtown parking spaces and into the city’s seismically unstable civic center.
The thread is that each of those projects — redeveloping the Boise Cascade site, redoing downtown parking and renovating the civic center — suffered from the same flaw: too little public involvement in the front end, which created big public opposition on the back end.
...And though civic leaders may to bill Salem as the City of Collaboration, it too often resembles the City of Contention.
How does this happen? Here is why:
• Oregonians expect to be involved in public decisions. They want to be heard. That is as Oregon-ish as eschewing umbrellas or wearing socks with sandals.
• A lot of Salem residents have time on their hands to pack public hearings with their arguments. Good for them, but others — the parents and others who seemingly do not have time to attend government meetings — should be represented as well.
• It is human nature for people to only pay attention once they recognize the potential impact on them.
• Meeting agendas often are undecipherable, and thus irrelevant, to the layperson.
I've been singing this song ever since I became involved in City of Salem goings-on.
My first exposure to the climate of citizen disinvolvement at City Hall came when my wife and I were shocked at how five beautiful downtown trees adjoining the US Bank building were cut down for no good reason.
After I contacted City officials, including the Mayor and City Manager, about serious problems with how this debacle of a decision was handled -- such as people being told the tree removals couldn't be appealed, which isn't legally true -- I expected them to respond with "Thanks for letting us know; how can we do better from now on?"
Without exception, I and others were met with a circle-the-wagons mentality. Citizen involvement was viewed as a distraction, something to be brushed-off, an irritant. Not as an opportunity to improve City of Salem policies or make more informed decisions.
Hughes wrote that this is needed at City Hall:
A commitment to recruiting, not simply encouraging, public involvement. In the spirit of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” it also is essential to involve the potential opponents.
This is a major mistake by the current administration -- failing to engage citizen activists, and also ordinary citizens who have a gripe about how the City of Salem is handling something.
Mayor Anna Peterson, City Manager Linda Norris, and other top officials should watch House of Cards and see how (fictional politician) Frank Underwood does his wily business.
Now, I'm not suggesting they should be as underhanded as Underwood is. But they would benefit from realizing that ignoring your opponents, rather than working with them, is a recipe for political disaster. The City's attempt to foist downtown parking meters on Salemians is a prime example.
In the case of Salem’s proposed downtown parking meters, the city task force recommendation came across to the public as a done deal, regardless of what officials said.
In addition, task force members implied that their recommendation obviously represented the best-possible solution because they had spent so much time studying the issue. But that is a fallacy of logic. If you travel the wrong road, you won’t arrive at the right destination regardless of how long you spend on that road.
Amazingly, City officials never asked downtown small businessses what they thought about the parking meter proposal, nor was the public allowed to speak at task force meetings. Unsurprisingly, this non-collaborative "our way or the highway" approach was met with a major stop sign: 9,000 signatures on a citizen petition to ban downtown parking meters.
Even more amazingly, Carole Smith and other organizers of the successful petition drive never were contacted by the Mayor or City Manager. They were totally ignored. More proof that Anna Peterson and Linda Norris are dedicated to making this a City of Contention, not Collaboration.
I figured that Smith and her fellow downtown activists would be invited to sit down with City officials and discuss the best way of moving forward on parking policies. This would have been the right thing to do, both politically and ethically.
But the current City Hall attitude is Changing direction is a no-no. Unless you're completely blocked.
Same thing is happening with the City's $80 million proposal for a new police facility and Civic Center renovations. Citizens have pointed out ways to save taxpayers $40 million, which would vastly increase the chance that a bond measure could be passed.
Yet City officials continue to plow ahead on their vastly over-priced $80 million project, which was planned in near-secrecy with very little public involvement.
So unless something changes, it will be blocked. The bond measure will fail.
Salem will be left with an inadequate police headquarters and Civic Center buildings that are seismically unsafe. Again, collaboration would be much better. But this would require City officials to be open-minded and flexible, which aren't qualities often on display these days at City Hall.
I enjoyed the comments on Hughes' piece, which included one from me. I'll share some of them in a continuation to this post. Here's a sample, a comment from Loreen:
This is an excellent opinion piece. It is all true. I have lived in Salem for decades. i cannot remember a time when Salem public processes and decisions have been so secret and decisions made with so little respect for the public's input as with our current City Council. We need some new blood on the Council.
Thank you Dick for focusing the community on why so many projects fail from lack of respectful communication between governement and the citizens. Over the past year I have watched the current Mayor and city council continually disrespect and alienate the downtown community. The Mayor and city council find it more convienent to listen and follow city staff. But that was not who they were elected to represent. City council/Mayor should be the balance point between what citizens want and what the city wants.
The city council adopted the parking meter petition so they could undermine it and get back to meters and time limits because they want the money - it never had anything to do with parking. The city is still refusing to adopt enforcement programs to successfully prevent employees etc, from using on-street parking spaces. Our elected officials are willing to comprimise the health of 500 downtown businesses to punish them for daring to disagree. If 9,000 citizens signing a petition cannot get the attention and respect of our elected officials, what can?
Dick, excellent points. Having been involved (as a citizen activist) with all of the problematic City projects you mentioned, I heartily agree with what you said. To me, and others with whom I've spoken, it comes down to what is meant by "reaching out."
Like you said, the City rarely reaches out early on in a sincere, open, collaborative brainstorming exercise with fellow Salemians. Not in an attempt to sell a certain point of view; rather, to hear all sorts of viewpoints and attempt to determine common ground everybody can stand on.
This isn't easy. Not for any of us. We all have firmly held beliefs, political persuasions, habitual ways of looking at the world. But by exposing ourselves to alternative perspectives, opening one's mind is not only possible -- it can be pleasant. After all, we are social creatures. We humans are made to converse.
I'm hoping that soon, after this year's City Council elections, some newcomers to City Hall will bring fresh perspectives to how our public officials go about the public's business. After all, aren't they "public servants," not public overlords?
Though it repeats many things I've been talking about for several months and mentioning in every political questionnaire and speech to explain why I decided to run for City Council, I am not alone in seeing these issues.
As I've followed Council, I've seen many citizens with a job/family/small business express the same concerns when they unexpectedly hear of an issue affecting them and struggle to use precious time to get involved. . .only to feel rebuffed by something that feels an already made decision. And that feeling about the decision often borders on a perception that the decision may well have been developed and made out of an arena where voters would normally look to follow it's development.
But, even though these concerns have been expressed in the past by me and some letters to the editor and comments on posts, when an SJ editorial expressed the same concerns, it legitimizes an item of political discussion and brings attention to it. That is what real newspapers are about. Thank you Dick Hughes.