I caught a repeat broadcast of a segment of KSKA’s Hometown Alaska tonight. Host Charles Wohlforth and guests Lois Epstein and Anne Brooks talked about how public input is solicited and processed for public projects, and how the criteria and means and methods for public process are evolving.
It was fairly lively, considering the subject matter and that it aired in the polite, genteel world of KSKA. [Well, I thought so, but I thrive on this sort of pastime. Your results may differ.] The overall take away from the hour: the old ways of communicating [attending a public meeting you found out about by reading the newspaper] are fractured; and no one here has any idea how to utilize the new channels.
Especially interesting: a call-in from a retired former State Highway Commissioner. He said, compared with the old days:
- Anchorage has a weak Planning Dept., and there’s a disconnect with AMATS;
- AMATS/DOT do not brief the Municipal Assembly about ongoing work; and
- Nothing of substance can be learned by attending public meetings.
He further hinted that the non-transparency that prevails means that projects take everyone by surprise. Why, for example are we talking about a road to Nome again?
Some other random notes I took during the broadcast, spoken by the host, panel or callers:
Washington State DOT uses Twitter extensively for public communication.
Anchorage Federation of Community Councils [FCC] email tree is a great way to receive various updates. FCC budget has been cut 5 to 10 percent each year for several years in a row.
ADN is a popular forum, but comment sections are difficult to read because of their faceless, derogatory nature.
Project leaders seem to resent it when people in the community go straight to their elected representatives with concerns, bypassing a project team.
How can we involve youth in the community to a much greater extent?
Road/transportation projects have incredible momentum and are difficult to influence, even when found not to be fact-based or desirable [i.e., Knik Arm Crossing]. Even if discourse on a project reveals new information, cancellation or change of direction is quite rare.
If there are a lot of new projects, there will also be neglect and deferred maintenance of existing infrastructure — this conflict isn’t usually debated but it should be.
“No build” alternative is sometimes required to be included, but usually isn’t a serious consideration.
Public process is only as good as the people administering it. And are they willing to listen?
Long-range plans such as Anchorage 2020 need to always influence project planning. We are still siting new projects for other reasons [the state already owns the land, for example].
Sometimes politicians claim that support or lack of it for a project can’t be proven by what is stated by the public since so few people participate. Polling, done in unbiased fashion can affirm or deny these claims.
Project engineers sometimes receive training where they are encouraged to empathize with commenters.
How do comments impact a project? How do we know if comments are heard? An effective structure of distribution and response. Constructive comments will often be utilized. Negative comments [“Your project sucks!”] are not useful or well received.
I would have liked them to get more into specifics. I’ve followed a lot of projects over the past decade or so. In the last couple years I submitted written comments for both the Muldoon Wal-Mart and the lease deal for First Tee at Russian Jack Springs Park.
Wal-Mart was administered by the Planning Dept. and the public comments were well displayed in an online matrix with author name, date and complete comment. All of the comments received were included. For Russian Jack, the Parks and Recreation Dept. project manager integrated excerpts from emails received into written narratives at various phases of the public process — but it would have been a lot more informative to know who wrote them, how many respondants were for or against the project, and all of the additional data, ideas and concerns contained in the complete and unabridged versions. Considering the Russian Jack project [which is hopefully now on indefinite hold] was a lot larger and more objectionable, I thought it deserved a more thoughtful approach.
The panel touched on it briefly, but maybe it’s worth restating here: proposed solutions for integrating and disseminating comments should foucs on access and how comments will be archived for future retrieval.
There are a lot of bloggers writing about public advocacy and community. I ran across one from St. Louis the other day that’s a good example — the writer and commenters are informed, connected and engaged; the posts are thoughtful, lengthy and linked to sources. If transportation planners and other municipal and state department heads started blogging their daily activities, intentions would be previewed far in advance of decisionmaking, and valuable input could be received on a continuous basis. It’s time.