Elected officials share successes, challenges with public engagement

Public engagement matters when tackling important issues in local government, elected officials agreed recently.

Whether local governments want to increase taxes or develop a master plan, public input has been valuable in achieving goals for municipalities, elected officials said in Los Angeles during a Kettering Foundation mayoral learning exchange organized by the National Civic League. Engaging the public, though, is not always easy nor does it always result in achieving governmental goals, they said.

The exchange included mayors, city councilmembers, civic engagement experts as well as others working with local government. Officials discussed several topics, including the triumphs, disappointments and challenges of civic engagement. They also learned strategies and approaches to civic engagement during the discussion.

Mary Casillas Salas, mayor of Chula Vista, California, shared the importance of deep community engagement over years, which she credited with the successful passages of two separate sales tax increases. The city establishes citizen oversight committees to oversee how money collected from the tax hikes is spent. In the most recent half-cent sales tax hike, the money raised promised to fund fire and police personnel hires. In a 2016 half-cent tax increase, the money collected has been spent on replacement of police and fire vehicles; emergency communications equipment, such as radios; street paving; and sports field repairs. Each ballot measure required the establishment of a citizen oversight committee.

As she interacts with the residents, Salas said she emphasizes that “city hall belongs to you.”

John Dunbar, mayor of Yountville, California, also touted the importance of community engagement, citing the use of citizen advisory boards. Involving people over multiple years has been very helpful, Dunbar said. For example, the city used a citizen advisory board to help analyze, evaluate and draft its Envision Yountville General Plan, which has been updated over the past two years.

“Now we have buy in,” Dunbar said.

Ellen Weir, mayor of Independence, Missouri, said the city’s first strategic plan was developed by engaging the community, schools, chambers and others. The effort led to identifying 74 goals, 20 percent of which were achieved in the first year.

But all civic engagement efforts don’t succeed. Durango, Colorado, Mayor Sweetie Marbury lamented the recent defeat of a tax increase request intended to fund a new police station and road improvements.  In this case, Marbury said the city councilmembers served as the city’s public relations team.  While some officials thought the city might try again in the spring, Marbury said she wasn’t sold on the idea.

“I think it’s going to take more time,” she said.

Changes in the ways city councils do business is another way to engage the public.

Emily Berge, a new councilmember in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, pushed for adding a public comment period at city council meetings and using listening sessions with the public. The city also has been looking at affordable housing as a need for a city that’s growing both in size and popularity, Berge said. To gain feedback, the city has been holding listening sessions to hear the concerns and the ideas of residents, she said.

“We have to get out of the way and let the public do it,” Berge said of finding innovative ideas to address wicked problems.

Other challenges related to engagement range from those who have no interest in government matters to small groups who have an outsized influence.

Chris Amorose Groomes, vice mayor in Dublin, Ohio, said she notices the apathy toward government.  Dublin is a wealthy suburb, which may impact whether residents have concerns about how government is managing the city’s income, Groomes said.

“Nobody cares. Nobody’s watching where their tax money is going,” Groomes said.

Lee Feldman, who had served as Fort Lauderdale’s city manager, said one problem  he sees is “tyranny of the minority” – the group who comes with the pitchfork and makes demands. Councilmembers seem to be swayed by those remarks, he said.

Jo Emerson, mayor of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, said she is noticing similar behavior. The person who yells the loudest gets his way, she said. This is troubling because “local government is where we can work on solving problems,” Emerson said. She also is troubled by state lawmakers who are chipping away at local governments’ rights to make decisions for their communities.

“I’m seeing the civility go out the window. I worry for our kids,” Emerson said.

Civic engagement experts, Martin Carcasson of Colorado State University and Ashley Trim of Pepperdine University, urged elected officials to stay focused on problem solving and use different approaches to engagement.

“We are experiencing a time when we have an inability to talk with each other,” Carcasson said. “You (elected officials) have to solve problems and avoid listening to only the loudest voices in the room.”

Trim said elected officials should consider making changes to increase public engagement. For example, rather than seating commissioners on a dais, situating officials on the floor can reduce the distance between officials and residents. Other actions could be rearranging chairs so that people look at each other or creating small groups to make conversations easier. In situations with conflict, people should ask questions.

“Think about how to engage people even those with whom you disagree,” Trim said, “partly by simply being curious, ‘How did you come to your conclusion?”

Carla J. Kimbrough, CDP

Program Director/Racial Equity

National Civic League

About the National Civic League

Founded in 1894 by Theodore Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, Frederick Law Olmsted and other municipal reformers, the National Civic League is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance civic engagement to achieve thriving, inclusive communities.  The National Civic League offers a variety of services to local governments, including the quarterly journal National Civic Review, Model City Charter and its Civic Index. The National Civic League also operates the All-America City Awards, which more than 500 communities have won since 1949, and provides technical assistance to communities.

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