Monday, April 11, 2011

Unhappy Gadflies

Today was the monthly meeting of the New Paltz Government Efficiency and Effectiveness Study Working Group. I read this statement during public comment:

This statement is respectfully submitted to the New Paltz Government Efficiency and Effectiveness Study Working Group (WG) (renamed during the project as the Steering Committee) and the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) co-chairs, signed by seven CAC members.

We, the undersigned, have grave concerns about the study process and product to date. Concerning process, the WG rejected the CAC’s request to hold evening meetings, to provide detailed meeting minutes, including rationales for major decisions, and to abide by the Core Values for Public Participation1 guidelines (International Association for Public Participation;*

The study proposal, which was submitted to the New York State High Priority Planning Grant program as part of the grant application, clearly states, “Concrete processes and strategies will be incorporated into the process in order to communicate facts and promote a dialogue that will facilitate a high level of civic engagement.” The RFP for the project also states, in bold, “An enhanced public involvement plan to promote wide scale participation in the process is required.”

Despite these guidelines, from the start, there has been a lack of public participation and clarity about the CAC’s role in that public process. One CAC member asked, “Is the CAC expected to merely inform the public of decisions, or will the public be invited to engage in meaningful participation?” Another said, “I thought our job was to gather public input [in order to] inform the process of the study, not to just garner support for its conclusions.”

To further the goal of public participation, the grant application specifically required the creation of a project website to facilitate information-sharing between the WG, CAC, and community at large. In addition, the application stated, “Dedicated pages on both municipalities’ websites will provide a record of the study progress and include links to all relevant documents.” The website, through the members-only Ning site, failed to meet the basic access needs of many members, continues to have multiple outstanding and unanswered questions, and supplies limited, unclear documentation to outline the process as it has unfolded. Requests from the CAC for additional information and better explanations have also been denied. The Village and Town were complicit in these obstacles to public access, failing to even link to the site until the project had been underway for months, and never providing additional resources. While the consultants have repeatedly suggested that questions, comments, and suggestions be funneled through the website, their responses have been exceedingly slow or, more frequently, absent altogether.

Whether deliberate or unintentional, this failure to engage the public has led us to feel that the WG is secretive and disinterested in process. These concerns were reinforced when the WG chose not to release the draft report to the public. Perhaps as a result of this decision, not one CAC member commented on the substance of the draft report, either due to stated issues with the lack of disclosure (at least four members voiced this concern), or speculatively, disengagement due to lack of clear process and transparency. One CAC member stated, “I hardly think it's fair to presume that this relatively small group can adequately represent the diverse perspectives of all of New Paltz, when all of New Paltz has not had any opportunity to review such a document.” Another member said, “How can there be such a recommendation when the information leading up to this conclusion has not been disclosed to the CAC, let alone the public? This whole report is lacking public input. There should not have even been a draft without public input.”

In terms of product, while the work to date has included a thorough analysis of dollars (efficiency), there has been barely any discussion about governance (effectiveness). We refer again to the study proposal, which states, “[T]his project will not only review opportunities for efficiency, it will also consider all potential governance models.”

Although the WG has discussed some governance models, none of these discussions included or even considered public feedback. The draft report rejects many possibilities (e.g., city, village dissolution, a model of our own design, status quo) without any public discussion. This process and the conclusions concerning possible governance models fly in the face of the study proposal, which states, “[t]his neutral feasibility study will not presume any preconceived outcome, and instead will consider all options, including the prospect of alternatives not currently defined by law and the option of continuation of the existing structure(s).”

The proposal also says, “Dissent will be an acknowledged component of the discourse and will not be an impediment to the process.” We feel strongly that our dissent and our concerns (which have been expressed repeatedly to you) have been ignored. Furthermore, we deeply hope that the WG will recognize our commitment to this project, and will listen to and act on our constructive criticisms. We want to be ambassadors for this project, but as one member noted, “the CAC can only act as translators if they are informed. Information on the process thus far and decisions that have been made are not readily accessible in its entirety.”

Lastly, since the CAC, to date, has provided no feedback to the WG on the substance—only on process—of the report, we respectfully request that the language that the CAC provided “input and involvement” on the draft report be deleted. Perhaps if the process improves, then the final report can properly acknowledge the contribution of the CAC. The CAC has been eager and prepared to contribute, however it is impossible to do so when the group has not been given the authority, autonomy, or information necessary to fulfill the expectations outlined in the original proposal.

In closing, we wish to make clear that we have a desire to provide the citizens of New Paltz with the information necessary to make sound, reasoned, and informed decisions about improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our government. We have made it clear that to do so, we must engage the public early and often. Failure to do so will almost surely result in rancor, discontent, and mistrust. In this regard the CAC accurately reflects the sentiments of the community.

John Logan
Ira Margolis
Amanda Sisenstein
Caryn Sobel
KT Tobin
Brittany Turner
Michael Zierler

* Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation
1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
2. Public participation includes the promise that the public's contribution will influence the decision.
3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
4. Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.


Martin McPhillips said...

The consolidation study is likely being smothered in its own process, and that could look like secrecy to someone not at ground zero of the confusion. Ironically, this letter injects more process, and you can tell that because it has a communications value of zero.

It's twelve paragraphs long (plus a seven-point postcript). It should be three:

1. You're not communicating with us.

2. You're not communicating with the public.

3. We're not having it.

Flesh those out with two or three more sentences each. Maybe it will get someone's attention.

My approach to this would be to explode the underlying premise.

Government efficiency: There is no such thing. And that's a provable in theory and practice.

If the gadflies would actually have a discussion here about it, then they would be out front of the issue instead of clamoring to get inside meetings that inbreed process.

Terence said...

I have to support Martin's comments . . . I can't imagine that anyone in the working group remembered how you began by the time you ended, even if they are open to your excellent points.

Simplicity is really a useful concept. I have been scratching my head that in order to ask the question, "Are two governments better than one?" we need to apply for a grant, hire a consultant, and appoint two completely different groups of volunteers.

This is another case where the overly-complex process suggests that there's a goal in mind, and your comments about how it's panning out support that assertion. I don't know if the goal is a specific type of consolidation, or the conclusion that the status quo is preferable, but there's no real work going on here, and probably won't be as long as we allow our elected bureaucrats to decide what the process should look like.

Brittany Turner said...

@Terence, how do you suggest we stop "allow[ing] our elected bureaucrats to decide what the process should look like"? I've been raising concerns similar to the ones echoed by KT for well over a year, in every format imaginable - short, researched, written, verbal, in the paper, in private, at meetings, etc. etc. etc. If the "elected bureaucrats" refuse to listen/acknowledge/respond/act, and there is no election available to vote someone else in, what approach have I overlooked?

Terence said...

New Paltz has a longer history than that of governmental non-responsiveness, Brittany. Toni ignored people on Crossroads, Jason didn't listen when folks protested the proposed mayoral salary increase, and Woodland Pond was built in a wetland. Having two governments is a great excuse to avoid doing anything inconvenient (although it's not the only one), and our elected officials are going to defend it by making the process confounding.

I think we need to look at ourselves and ask why we keep voting for people who don't do anything we want them to. This community reminds me of a domestic abuse victim, always returning to the abusers.

Brittany Turner said...

Fair enough, but with the exception of West, I've never made the mistake of voting for any of them. So your solution that I stop voting for people who don't do anything I want them too isn't particularly helpful. What about those of us who DON'T vote for them and still want to see our government(s) act in the best interest of the community? What should we be doing instead?

Martin McPhillips said...

Here's a good chart I just came across that shows government efficiency in action, largely at the local level because it reflects spending on schools:

That's the inflation adjusted (to constant $2009) spending per student for a running 13yr total, K-12, along with changes in academic performance. That's a U.S. average. Locally the spending is roughly twice the latest number on the chart. It would be interesting to see a chart like that just for the New Paltz School District, 1970-2011, contrasting spending with performance.

Martin McPhillips said...

I would argue that "consolidation" has little to nothing to do with either efficiency or effectiveness. It is largely about control and power.

But once a civic fad takes hold in the imagination of the "movers and shakers," well, it's like pulling dinosaur teeth with a crowbar to get rid of it. There are, of course, many tough questions that sit, as Camus phrased it, "between yes and no," but those are the wrong questions to leave to professional busybodies to decide. There are people around town who are still committed to the "One-Way Main Street Loop," for instance, despite the fact that it makes no sense at all, and in so many different ways. But present them with those arguments and the essence of what you get back is "we recommend it because we recommend it."

The exact same thing is going to happen with this consolidation study. "But we studied it for months, we, the movers and shakers, and it was official, because there was a $50,000 state grant. We recommend it because we recommend it."

I certainly have no beef with Fairweather, who is a smart man, but the "movers and shakers" clearly have him surrounded. They'll hold him hostage until they get what they want.

Brittany Turner said...

@Martin, I don't necessarily disagree with your assessment of how these things frequently play out. But if you think that committee has developed any kind of consensus on the best way to move forward, you're mistaken.

Martin McPhillips said...

I don't think that a consensus has been developed; I think that the consensus has been foreordained. It's just a matter of working the reductive process that leads there. I noted a "white paper" being waved around to that effect at the last meeting.

All "right thinking" people will absorb the message and respond accordingly.

Or the beatings will continue until morale improves.