Civic Communication 101

I went to a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last night and learned a whole lot about communication between government and citizens. I also found it interesting this morning to see that some similar lessons were learned by a Tyler who attended a Truth in Taxation hearing in Davis County last night. The lessons that Tyler talks about are good for citizens and officials. I would like to list some other lessons that I learned – which may be a result of the fact that the meeting I attended was really a different type of meeting than the hearing he attended.

Citizens: Take yourself seriously

There was a group of neighborhood residents who came to present their concerns with elements of a specific development near them. Unfortunately many of those residents were attired in shorts, sandals, and baseball hats. While I accept the fact that we live in a very laid-back society these residents combined their casual dress with with a casual and subtly belligerent attitude which left them looking sophomoric when contrasted with the professionalism of the developer as he addressed their concerns. His professionalism is almost certainly the kind of professionalism that most of them display in their places of work. I don’t know if they really did not expect to accomplish anything or if they really did not understand that their cocksure demeanor would make it less likely that their concerns would be fairly considered.

Officials: Make meeting format flexible

The basic meeting format was to have an overview of the issue, any comments by the proposing party, and then public comment followed by response by the proposing party concluding with committee action. This format was adequate for most items, but there were two items where I noticed myself and others of the public who might have comments come to mind based on the response of the proposing party or the committee after the committee or proposing party responds to the initial public comments. The format of the meeting should be flexible enough to allow the committee to open up a second period of brief public comment as appropriate prior to committee action.

Citizens: Come prepared

The same group of residents who had been too casual had appointed a spokesperson (who was more appropriately attired) and had done their homework before the meeting. They knew their concerns and made sure that they got a say. Others who came for various issues were not so well prepared. When questioned by the committee they were left saying “I think . . .” or “I’ll have to get back to you on that” which could only result in their requests being tabled or else ignored. Certainly you cannot be prepared for every contingency that might arise, but doing your homework will make a big difference.

Officials: Make it possible for us to prepare

I think that officials do a lot of work to make this happen most of the time but on an issue of a new zoning category being proposed there was a resident who had concerns but who was unable to prepare adequately for the meeting because the committee had not made the text of the proposed ordinance available for review. Citizens do not need to have everything available to them that the committee members have to prepare for a meeting, but on a proposed ordinance they should have access to the proposed content of the ordinance even if it will undergo revision before it is passed. A one sentence description on the agenda is not usually sufficient for that kind of issue.

I sincerely believe that most involved citizens and most public officials are trying to work together in a positive way. This is not meant to be a criticizm against those efforts, but merely an effort to add my insights into the process.