Citizen/City Dialogue - A Myth

By
• Topics: Bellingham,

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!

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Nancy Grayum

Aug 23, 2018

The elevation styles of seating in City Hall Chambers indeed puts us all in our place. Time for a 21st Century Do-Over. There are so many great design options in modern flexible public spaces from lecture halls to interactive classrooms of many sizes.

Options are available now at WWU, WCC and  in many other schools and work places,  available for a very reasonable rental fee.

Perhaps council and commissions could try a few different venues to optimize their willingness to collaborate.

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Lisa E. Papp

Aug 23, 2018

Excellent points, Dick! I have been thinking back over the various City and County Council meetings that I have attended this past year and several where I have spoken and I have to agree with you. Judging from the lack of change or progress on certain important local issues, it does feel like we are speaking at each other and not really coming up with workable and meaningful solutions. How can this change/ Hopefully your article is a start and noticed and discussed by the Councils and the Mayor.

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 23, 2018

Thank you, Dick, for writing this timely and essential article.  Something needs to change.

As you know, during the 2016 Bellingham comprehensive plan update, the Association of Bellingham Citizens (ABC) and its members were active participants, especially during the planning commission (PC) work sessions and public hearings.  During that time, the ABC made several attempts to encourage PC members and planning staff to provide a venue for “open discussion” as required by the Growth Management Act (GMA) under RCW 36.70A.140.

But the city was having none of that.

Finally, on May 12, 2015, twenty-five members of the ABC (including you) submitted a comment letter documenting the city’s non-compliance with the GMA.  This letter was a follow up to 15 individual letters submitted by ABC members requesting genuine open discussion as well as consideration of and response to public comment.  In typical city fashion, all of these letters were ignored.  As the ABC wrote in its May 2015 letter:

“It now seems clear that these public comment letters - which request the consideration of and response to comment made by the public - will themselves be ignored.  If the situation wasn’t so disheartening, we might appreciate the irony.”

I think disheartening is a good description.  If not disheartening, perhaps hopeless.

Until we elect people who believe genuine open dialogue - and complying with the GMA - are important, is it realistic to expect better?

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Dianne Foster

Aug 23, 2018

Thank-you Dick!  That explains the malaise and exhaustion I feel after hours of carefully preparing a futile 3-minute comment,  which never has any effect,  and never goes anywhere.   Fake democracy?

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John Kole

Aug 24, 2018

My personal thanks for the edification of the malaise in communicating with the City Council and Mayor. In years past when I ran for Council I was fortunate to have the time to attend all city council committee meetings as well as their retreats. That’s where I learned that committees had already drawn straws regarding their decision regarding their position on what was to be discussed at the public hearing that evening. Citizens didn’t know that the council had already made a decision. Also at that time the council and committee meetings were covered by the Herald and a local radio station. Change is certainly necessary !

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Doug Lomas

Aug 24, 2018

Dear Dick   There is a weird tendency for a minorty of  twaddle heads to be present in city council and cause a warping of judgement and common sense to flourish in the doings of the group

It is crstal clearthat elected council  are and always have been in love with their own personal viewpoints,  whether or not they should be aligned  with their constituents’  views  seem to have little traction in their locked minds.

My advanced age put togethher with my years of involvement in twaddle city have put a hurdle to my patience   which drove me out of desperaton to abandon trying to interfere with the inevitable  mindset of the  dubious  “representatives”  who managed to manipulate their way into city council

Once elected so many indifferent  types shift their minds into middle finger omnipotence that reasoning becomes undesirable to them and a hazard to their ability to function this side of the looking glass

MINDSET MOB :     “ME.?   ..Debate ..?   Why do uou not just get lost?

There have been exceptions to followers of the mindset mob’s credo of   “The World ACCORDING TO Me but / they were few   (Just a few)  so do not hope for much better.  

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Thomas R. Scott

Nov 01, 2020

As much as I hate spending money on government, a bigger AND better venue is in order.  However, I would suggest a venue for all the larger Whatcom County bodies to use as well as rent out when not in use to help recoup some of the costs.

While bigger is definitely not always better.  Here we have a situation where at least the only venue the City uses is certainly inadequate for the current and future population.  The County’s venue also seems too small at times but seems sufficient much of the time.

I propose the following:

  • Buy-in from CoB, Whatcom County, Port, PUD, Whatcom Council of Governments (possibly and possibly also administering the facility), WWU, WCC and others as deamed appropriate.
    • Part of the buy-in could be in the form of some of the underutilized conferencing equipment including electronics, folding tables and chairs that are scattered accross several venues which are simply lacking as they stand.
  • Possibly as part of a Library rebuild or as part of the Civic Sports Complex build out.
  • A main hall along with smaller halls and board/conference rooms.
  • Halls to be reconfigurable for “lecture” format, mixed format and in-the-round as well as round-table format.
  • Build in economy of scale

    • Ccentral prioritized scheduling/billing;
    • Shared
      • Conferencing and presentation resources;
      • Folding chairs and conference tables;
      • Visually impared resources;
      • Hearing impared resources;
      • Other…
    • Tech support;
    • Event parking;
    • Et cetera.

The point would be to share resources gaining economy of scale such as has been done and is continuing to be done at and with the Civic Sports Complex.

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Thomas R. Scott

Nov 01, 2020

As for the current City format for many of the hearings, it is simply inadequate.

  • Some applicants are allowed to be presenters while others are not.
  • Scheduling of topics of great interest to a large number of citizens too often scheduled late into the night after time consuming presentations arguably of much less interest to most and sometimes nearly all the audience.

The second item seems a constant.  It is almost a rule of thumb that the more citizens with an interest, the later a given topic is scheduled.  More so when the general public seems to be in opposition to a given hearing body.

For years, it seemed certain that the latter situation was an actual rule and that either literally sweating it out in Council Chambers while listening to a hum of drivel until 10, 11 or even later for “our” topic to start.  It was sometimes a good thing when Chambers were clearly overflowing for a specific topic because, I could sit outside Chambers on the cool floor to wait it out for our topic.

After waiting all that time, the “public” was/is often given short shrift to make their point and almost always not given the time or courtesy which had been given to “the other side”.

And every time, as soon as our late topic was complete for the night, if the meeting was not adjourned the audience pretty much cleared anyway as indication that it was “not just me” who has suffered through all this.

Conversely, I would say that at least some of the virtual meetings have been run more equitably allowing more questions and input in a more timely manner to the general public.

However, the normal in-person format is typically, public comment on an array of topical or atopical matters, long presentations without any opportunity for questions from the public; Then hearings which also disallowed public questioning in a timely manner; Finally, when topical public comment was allowed, it was timed and any “back and forth” questioning was either not allowed or was peremptory at best.

 

 

 

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Dianne Foster

Nov 01, 2020

Thomas,

I so agree.   It seems we used to attend these kinds of back and forth forums at the PeaceHealth St. Luke’s Center,  (near the PH/St. Joe’s Cancer Center),  which can be opened to more rooms if needed for more people.   It’s free to health care providers,  but if not in use,  why wouldn’t they offer it to COB?   The problem,  however,  is that there are no public in-person gatherings during the pandemic.   But we should tuck away the idea for future.

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