After more than 15 years of dealing with city hall, I am troubled by a lack of true dialogue between the city and its citizens. This deficiency consistently manifests itself and permeates issues before the Bellingham Planning and Development Commission and the City Council where a true exchange of ideas or information does not take place. In both groups, their authority is symbolized by the chambers where they are enthroned, including the dais itself, a relic from the past when higher meant more important, e. g. the monarch speaking ex cathedra. So, we physically elevate the council and commission members while all others who engage take the seats below. Notably, those in the audience who may find themselves physically elevated from the council, cannot speak: no clapping, no booing, no hissing is allowed unless the council president agrees with the crowd, then these minor peccadilloes are overlooked.
Consequently, we have set up a situation wherein the city and its citizens talk AT one another, not WITH one another. The submission of letters and an appearance at the podium for a miserable three minutes does not constitute dialogue. Further diminishing citizen input, the public’s podium is placed at a lower level, reducing the citizen speaker to a supplicant. Even the placement of city staff at tables “down in front” is demonstrative. [I posit, not totally in jest, that the perfect meeting configuration is a circle of chairs with no tables and no clothing to designate position or authority: no ties, no suits, no uniforms, no hats… Some urge no clothing at all as the ultimate equalizer, but I will avoid such a suggestion.]
The essence of the problem reveals itself when “technical experts” are brought in first and given abundant time and attention. Unfortunately, equal time and attention is not accorded to residents, some of whom may have more knowledge and expertise than is appreciated. Moreover, these residents are usually driven by a desire to offer the very best to the community, rather than a desire to bring the most dollars to corporate entities, often headquartered far from Bellingham and to whose coffers Bellingham’s money will flee.
Currently, there is no robust critique or questioning of what the council is told by the staff or so-called experts, especially those whose reason for being there is to make money or advance their own private interests. Incorrect, incomplete, outrageous, and contradictory information from different sides often goes unchallenged, either out of ignorance or due to malicious forethought. Uncorrected statements continue in the collective memory as memes to frame the discussion that follows.
We need more a robust exchange that will become the rule, not the exception. The council and the planning commission ought to further discussion with citizens through a true back-and-forth in a public venue, perhaps a panel discussion. We could have panel discussions with four or five citizens, sitting at what is normally the staff table, engaged in real give-and-take with the council. Attestations made at the table could immediately be subject to challenge. Panelists would need to defend their assertions. The council could insert their own comments and thoughts to an actual dialogue instead of a series of statements taken over long periods and eventually forgotten with the passage of time. If we were to implement a panel discussion process, or something similar, it might even prove interesting enough that the public would eagerly attend council and commission meetings!