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; http://www.iap2.org).*
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.
* 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.