Q #1 Participation in local government

1.    The door of Town Hall says “Participate, put your ideas into action.”  Do citizens have real ways to help direct Town government and if not, how can effective participation be assured?

George Cianciola   Yes, I believe that citizens can help direct Town goyernment in several, real ways. First, they can volunteer to serve on advisory boards or task forces.  Although our advisory board system is expected to be revised and simplified in the future it still offers an opportunity to help shape Town government and affairs.  Second citizens can attend or watch Council meetings and then share their opinions with their Council persons, Town Staff, and advisory boards. Third, citizens can keep abreast of what’s happening by signing up for the Town’s list serve or visiting the Town’s website. And finally, if a citizen is seriously committed to helping direct Town government they can run for elected office.  Effective participation requires that the citizens engage both each other and their government officials, either in person or through digital communications – it does not happen through osmosis.

Ed Harrison   The town’s public hearing and petition processes, which are the fullest I’ve encountered as someone who has spoken many times in four jurisdictions, can be used effectively if members of the public consider objectively what the Council and advisory boards (notably Planning and CDC) would find most helpful to hear in considering issues. It often sounds as if speakers are at the microphone to vent or to hear themselves talk. Research ahead of time can be especially helpful, including interviewing board members. I try to make myself especially accessible for questions – as possible, given the major legal constraints on Council members in the SUP  process – but I can’t speak for others on the Council or on boards. Some members of advisory boards have become especially knowledgeable about their board’s issues over time, and are worth approaching as well; contact information for them is not as readily available as it is for Council member. My wife, Pat Carstensen, who because of our neighborhood’s location, continues to operate in Durham County circles, says that participation in Chapel Hill government is particularly helped by the rich community networks we have, of which FOBC and NRG are two of the best.

 Loren Hintz   There are numerous ways that citizens can participate: Public hearings, advisory boards, email, surveys. However, Council and staff at times should go to places in town (restaurants, churches, parks, street fairs, community centers) and listen to feedback. The issue is how Council uses that feedback. Council needs to listen to recommendations, make a decision in a timely fashion and if they reject the recommendation should explain to the citizens why they did not use their feedback. Also it is important that individual meetings and boards for specific development not last too long as it is hard to for volunteers to attend all the meetings. While the staff or developer needs to present a professional plan, it is important to leave opportunity for other ideas to be presented and considered.

Sally Greene   Citizens do have real ways to participate. The award-winning Chapel Hill 2020 process set a new standard and expectation for community participation. The town has stepped up its social media participation in order to get the word out about meetings, and this year’s budget authorizes hiring a new social media person. Yet we can do more. We should be thinking, for example, about ways to use technology to accommodate parents with young children who are reluctant to sign up for town boards because of the burden of leaving home for meetings.

The Rosemary Imagined project has succeeded in drawing from the student population by holding an event at Tru, near campus. That’s one example of a creative approach: meet target communities where they are. Other nontraditional forums were used during the 2020 process. We should encourage more of that. On the other hand, in my experience online surveys are not very useful. It’s hard to know how representative they are, and the questions are often decontextualized, hard to answer thoughtfully.  I believe that when we establish citizen-led steering committees, the town could more thoroughly train them in how to work with community members who come to the meetings to speak

Gary Kahn (transcribed from hand writing) I have seen many citizens go to town council meetings and voice their opinions on issues, but a major concern of mine is how many of them actually vote.  I have attended community meetings and have talked to a few citizens and after introducing myself they tell me they don’t vote – their voice is not being heard unless they vote.

Paul Neebe  Yes, I think citizen participation is very important.  Citizens can and should participate by speaking up.  This can be done by email, telephone and by speaking in person at the Advisory Board and Town Council meetings.  I think participation can be assured by electing leaders who are good listeners and who put citizens’ ideas into action.

Maria  Palmer   Certainly. Citizen participation is evident in all the advisory boards, the many task forces, and the comments that Town Council receives before and after any vote or decision. Because we are a small town and elect our representatives “at large,” I believe they are highly responsive to citizen input. The problem is that not all segments of the population know how to give this input or feel welcomed.

Amy Ryan    I’m a strong believer in citizen participation in public processes.  This involvement is especially critical at a time when we’re considering substantive changes to the way we plan and review development.

Over the past year, I’ve advocated successfully with the town to establish citizen committees for two major areas in town — Central West and Obey Creek.  Getting community voices up front in the planning process is an important first step in insuring meaningful participation.  I think community members can have much greater impact on the outcome of a plan or policy if their input is involved early in the discussions, where it can shape the direction of town decisions.

D.C. Swinton  From what I’ve seen, there are a number of opportunities for the citizens of Chapel Hill to get involved – boards, Town meetings, et cetera. However, I believe the Town can do a better job at promoting its desire for participation. In my opinion, that would include ads in the paper, signs and fliers throughout the Town, discussions on the buses, and, most importantly, visits to neighborhoods and the University. If we go directly to the citizens, they will know we want to get them involved as much as possible.

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