Webinar: Democracy Innovations for Better Public Meetings
For years, there have been headlines across the country regarding the contentiousness of public meetings. On the one hand, the public is angry and resentful of the limitations of official public processes, and on the other, appointed, and elected officials are equally frustrated with dealing with unstable public environments where disruption and cathartic outbursts are increasingly commonplace.
On May 25, the Center for Democracy Innovation hosted a webinar entitled: Overcoming Challenges to Build Better Public Meetings. The webinar was the first public event introducing the American Arbitration Association - International Center for Dispute Resolution (AAA-ICDR) funded project that seeks to inject democratic innovations into official public meetings.
For Frank Benest, Rusty Kennedy and Erica L. Manuel, the purpose of public meetings is to identify priorities and goals of a local government agency, to allocate resources to achieve these goals and priorities, to discuss and approve laws and regulations in a jurisdiction, to conduct the normal business of a governing body, and to provide a safe environment for public comment.
Our project is working with three pilot communities to conduct community-engaged research, involving a civic engagement scorecard and civic infrastructure scan to help lay the groundwork for collaborative discussions and planning with these local communities. The goal is to implement innovations in public meetings so that both the public and staff can make better collective decisions.
As the first entry into our project, the webinar provided an initial way to kickstart the conversation about the opportunities and challenges of making official public meetings more innovative. We heard from a mayor, a legal professor, and an engagement practitioner. Below are some takeaways from each of the participants.
Chrelle Booker, Mayor Pro Tem, Tryon, NC, President of Women in Municipal Government, National League of Cities
Mayor Booker spoke about the context of Tryon and Polk County, North Carolina, from the lens of first a community member and then an elected official. Mayor Booker noted that she has experienced significant safety concerns in particular meetings about a contentious issue. This has led to strategizing with other local officials, police, and security at the National League of Cities, to create safer environments where both the public and staff can feel comfortable in the same room. As Mayor Booker reminds us, the people expect to be heard at Tryon’s City Council Meetings, and it is up to the local government to provide a safe space for differing ideas to be shared. Mayor Booker takes a unique approach to building relationships with her constituents to help them feel connected – she focuses on informal, one-on-one interactions with people in the community. Additionally, the public is allowed an open time frame to provide public comments before the City Council.
Lisa Blomgren Amsler, J.D., Distinguished Professor, Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service, Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
Professor Amsler spoke about the legal aspects of official public meetings. A key factor in navigating and making these processes better is to first know the laws in your state, using, for example, Ballotpedia. It is relevant to know at the beginning of any sunshine laws and if any policy intrastate pre-emption or the banning of local ordinances. Another notable point provided by Professor Amsler is that there are information gaps between legal and engagement practitioners and this stems in part from different training. While many suggest that law and legal staff might be risk averse when it comes to innovation, Professor Amsler reminds us that by focusing on the sunshine and pre-emption laws, we can readily observe what rules are, or are not, in place, which leaves open unique opportunities to alter aspects of official public meetings.
Matt Leighninger. Director, Center for Democracy Innovation, National Civic League
Director Leighninger spoke about some cornerstones of how to make official public meetings better. Some of the ideas presented include having complimentary activities before, during, and after public processes, having an overall engagement strategy where public meetings fit in, building relations with community organizations, and collaborating with other institutions. Specifically, Director Leighninger highlighted three facets to help change the terrain of official meetings. First, do your research by involving diverse members throughout the community. Second, be proactive in drawing upon local networks to recruit people to participate, and create small deliberative and facilitated discussions. Finally, provide asynchronous opportunities for the public and staff to connect through different ways including surveys, meet and greets, digital engagement, and generative idea sharing.
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