–How Sedona citizens can influence City decisions on crucial issues
By Ron Vernesoni
(April 1, 2015)
Earlier this year, I read the “Sedona City Talk” in Sedona Biz by the new mayor encouraging citizens to get involved in the “Citizen Engagement” program. Citizen engagement sounds like a good idea, but I believe there may be some confusion about the difference between “citizen engagement” and formalized public participation.
I was fortunate enough to move to Sedona in 2000. It is painful to remember how the City has mucked through so many public meetings in the past 15 years on so many vital issues—NSA, lights, CVS, and many more—with no formal process or blueprint for effectively managing public input. Much is said about the importance of remaining in the present moment in life, and deservedly so. But is has also been said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. So, my purpose in remembering watershed events from the past is not to drag us through emotional muck, but to help us put current events in historical context. We can try to learn from the past and not repeat our mistakes.
2009 NSA meeting
Way back in October 2009, citizens on the City’s mailing list were provided with a copy of a flyer from the City of Sedona outlining the background for the Council Special Session regarding the vote on designation of a National Scenic Area (NSA) for the Sedona area. The flyer from the City Council stated–“we invite you or your group representative to attend this public meeting and provide public comment”. That was essentially all the flyer said–no agenda or other details were provided.
I attended the emotionally charged meeting. As expected, it was an overflow crowd with standing room only. On a very important night in the history of Sedona in the fall of 2009, the public never stood a chance to influence the outcome of the NSA designation. The deck was stacked. Council members already knew before the meeting how they were going to vote based on their own ideological and political values. The deciding Council members voted in a majority block, against the NSA designation.
The 2009 meeting was a sham perpetrated on a very caring, passionate, and dedicated Sedona public. The public was misled into believing they could make a difference that night. In reality, their input was irrelevant and without meaning.
At the meeting that night, citizens were allowed to stand at the podium and speak (“provide public comment”). City Council members and other City representatives simply sat and listened, but the meeting was not interactive. There was no dialogue. There were no standards for how public input was to be managed, or how public input would influence the outcome. No moderator or facilitator specially trained in dealing with controversial and contentious issues was present.
Careful planning should have gone into the 2009 public meeting convened by the City, arguably one of the most consequential City Council meetings ever held. Sadly, that never happened. This vague and undefined approach to public participation continues to this day in Sedona. It is time for the City to develop a true formalized public participation process that will provide the public with a fair and well-defined chance to influence City decisions on important issues.
True public participation
A true formalized public participation process is well-defined and clearly understood by the public. The operative word is “process”—a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end. The process should be provided to the public in writing, preferably in the Community Plan. The process does not change from year to year at the whim of the sitting City Council. It is a blueprint for honoring the public’s right to meaningfully participate in important City decisions that affect their lives. All public input is contextualized within the framework of a standardized and well-defined process.
The success of a public participation program is largely determined by how thoroughly and thoughtfully it is planned. Successful meetings and events are determined by the degree to which a government agency effectively commits to and prepares for the entire process. There are no surprises in the process. Open and transparent government agencies assign a very high priority to the the public participation process.
Some of the key elements of the public participation process are:
–What are the decision criteria?
— How are alternatives established?
— How does the public influence the outcome of the decision?
— How is the final decision made and who makes it?
Sedona citizens must be provided with specific details regarding the public participation process for all public meetings, including the following issues:
1) What will be the exact format of the meeting?
2) What is the detailed agenda for the meeting?
3) What are the rules of participation?
4) How will large crowds be handled to ensure their safety, comfort, and accessibility to the Council?
5) How will public comments be evaluated, and against what assessment criteria?
6) How will public comments influence the outcome, if at all?
7) How will consistent public themes be addressed, if not reflected in Council actions or decisions?
8) Will a trained facilitator be present?
9) Will public comments be transcribed or recorded for later evaluation by the City?
10) Will a responsiveness summary be provided by the City to all comments (by category)?
11) Will podium speakers be allowed to interact with City representatives?
12) Will questions be taken from the general audience?
13) Will the City provide feedback to questions or comments?
14) For ongoing topics with long life spans, will comments from early stakeholders be incorporated into the process?
New Sedona community plan
There are nine sections in the new Sedona community plan. Unfortunately, public participation is not one of them. The failure of the City to include public participation as a separate section in the community plan speaks volumes regarding the priority of this issue to the City.
The community plan refers to “public participation procedures adopted by the City”. What public participation procedures? In reality, the community plan trivializes public participation. There are no formalized public participation procedures in the entire community plan. There is no reference to where these procedures might be found, or a plan for writing them in the future. True public participation does not exist in the City of Sedona.
Hope for the future?
The recent emphasis on citizen engagement committees gives one hope that the City is finally developing a genuine interest in the sagacity of its citizens. However, the City needs to be honest with its amazing citizens about one thing. There is currently no meaningful and well-defined public participation process in Sedona. Let’s stop the denial. “Citizen Engagement” is a volunteer program, not a true public participation process where citizens can have a real influence on the outcome of crucial government decisions affecting their lives.
I am hopeful that the new mayor and City Council will make development of a true and well-defined public participation process a high priority in Sedona.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up some place else”…..David Campbell