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Thread: Staffing citizens' committees

  1. #1
    Jan 2004

    Staffing citizens' committees

    Last week, I posted a thread regarding presentation of a document at a public meeting that was put together by a citizens' group. I'd like to back up and ask the more basic question:

    What have been your experiences staffing citizens' committees? How successful? How'd you do it?

    I've been staffing a committee for the past five months that will be making its first public presentation this week to the public. We've actually got a decent document and I think that it will make decent policy in the future. The actual workings of the committee weren't ideal, however, largely because we weren't sure how to deal with the public. We hired mediators/facilitators to help us (this is a committee dealing with zoning in montana, after all) and process was this: 5-10 minutes of public input at the beginning, 1 hour 45 minutes or so of work, 5-10 minutes of public input at the end. By the third meeting, of course, anybody who wasn't on the committee quit coming because they were pissed off they couldn't talk. The meeting this thursday is going to be an open forum for some of these folks to sound off on the process.

    How could we have done it differently? How do you manage general public comment with a group when you also need to accomplish something? If we had opened it up to everyone, all the time, we never would have gotten anything done; yet by setting groundrules on when people could talk, and then sticking with them, we alienated many people.

    How have others dealt with this in the past? This is the part of planning that fascinates me- providing a forum that allows people to have (relatively) fulfilling/(relatively) non-confrontational/(relatively) comfortable interactions with local government- and I'm going to be seeking out this type of work in the future. How have others dealt with these situations?

  2. #2

    May 1997
    Williston, VT
    First, don't hire that facilitator again.

    Second, while Gallatin County has a long history of bad public processes, I am not sure your assumption you would never have gotten anything done is correct.

    You have to balance the benefit of letting a set committee do some real work, as you did here, against the costs of not involving everyone. The way the balance tends to work in Montana (among many other places) is that a set committee's work will be rejected because of furor that often has nothing to do with substance and everything to do with who got to make the decisions, while open committees' is a little more likely to be adopted. The compromise is to have a set committee, the members of which make the final decision, but who let everyone sit around the table and participate during all but the final deliberations. This takes a little more time and a stronger hand from the planner/facilitator, but it has always worked best for me (and as you know, things don't always work no matter what you do).

    What happens now will be determined by the finesse committee members have in communicating with those who feel they were excluded.

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