Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Public Input: What it Means

Scott York, Chair of Loudoun Board of Supervisors, articulated, at a meeting some time ago, that voters vote elected officials into office and by doing so they trust the elected official to make decisions on their behalf. His assertion at that meeting was that public hearings are meaningless because, by voting a person into office, you have already made your voice known. 

A recent letter to the editor, by one of my colleagues, included this statement: 
Further, it is unreasonable to assert that any one group represents the interest of the entire Town. We do not have a community vote for every item before council, but a representative system where the people elect governing members who are chosen to make reasonable decisions that are in the best interest of the Town as a whole, not a subset of the resident population or group with a particular view.

Here is my main problem with this type of thinking:  A vast majority may not come forward and say anything, and that is typical with our busy lives and schedules. But does that make the voice of those who write or speak out less valid? Our new Blue Ridge Supervisor was elected by a mere 15% of the eligible voting population. Do we relegate all of our voices to that 15% for the next four years and refuse to hold public hearings? Of course not.  In the 2014 Town Election, broken down by council member, we each were voted in by roughly 16% of the eligible voting population. Do we ignore the other 84%. 

Now, does this mean that someone who did not vote in an election has no say in the public process or governance going forward?  I am sure the majority of us would answer no. In a democracy, it is the public that determines where it wants to go, and the role of our elected officials and staff is to get them there. The Town Survey is an excellent indicator of where town residents want to go.

When it comes to public input, I have seen the separation of speakers into out-of-town or in-town residents. The sole purpose of delineating a person as an in-town resident or one that lives outside of our limits is to diminish their voice.  Perhaps when developers speak up at our meetings and declare their love of Purcellville, we should ask them where they live. Do we give their input more weight because they own a business or a parcel of land, or both?  As Town residents of Purcellville, we not only own land here, we live our daily lives here. Everything that occurs in this town affects our families, our schools, traffic, taxes, and our quality of life. The developer who speaks at our meetings only has his bottom line affected. Why does his voice continue to hold seemingly more weight?  

Public participation will not succeed if it is not genuine. If the decision makers use it as a way to sell a pre-determined plan or solution and do not genuinely care about stakeholder concerns, then the whole process is suspect. Public participation is not a one-time event.  

With regards to the length of time for such processes, transparency and accountability should always trump administrative expediency. 

Then there are those who cling to the myth of the 'Silent Majority.'  In a democratic society, those who choose to remain silent also elect to be ignored. Politicians use the idea of the 'silent majority' to convince their opposition that they are backed by those ready to spring into action. It's like filling Fireman's Field with ghosts and convincing ourselves that we can hear them clapping for our team. 

If a 'silent majority' exists in Purcellville, what prevents them from being heard? Perhaps, they are afraid. Intimidated? Bullied? But how could this be so if they are the majority? If they are not heard because they do not speak up, then their presence cannot be used “in absentia” to win an argument.

If a silent majority is to be given legitimacy in this community, then the “vocal minority” who exercise their democratic rights by being heard, who act out their responsibilities as voters, taxpayers, volunteers, or political candidates should not be intimidated or diminished. If such a 'silent' power exists, it’s time the people who are part of to speak up and help shape the future of this community. We need their voices, energy, and vision. What we do not need is political manipulation camouflaged as meaningless rhetoric.

With regards to the Zoning District Use Changes being discussed tonight, I believe the town has had an open dialogue with the public.  Three public input sessions were held, and there have been numerous opportunities for public input since.  By holding these public meetings and information sessions, we gain many benefits to involving the public:  
  • Information and ideas on public issues.
  • Public Support for planning decisions.
  • Create good will which can carry over to future decisions.
  • Spirit of cooperation and trust between the agency and the public.

I attended most of these public meetings, and much of the residential public commentary toward these changes was negative, as have been the many emails the council has received since. Input from local businesses and churches led to the revision or repeal of many of the changes.   

We should open up our minds to all manner of input at all times.  Elected officials are supposed to put constituent interests above their own. I still can't fathom how these zoning use changes do that.