As the chapter on the Edmonds Waterfront Connector closes and a new chapter on how to best provide emergency services access to all of the locations west of the railroad tracks begins, I, personally and professionally, have come up with three primary takeaways.
My first takeaway is that the city should rethink its community engagement processes. Relying on public meetings to solicit and assess public opinions to make critical local government decisions fails to recognize two critical factors.
Public meetings are rarely representative of the community and can lead to government decisions that are ultimately opposed by the population at large and decrease public confidence in government and the processes they use for decision-making. Public meetings leave out significant demographic groups that (a) do not realize the importance of the issue at hand, (b) care but do not have the time or physical ability to attend a meeting in person because of issues such as lack of transportation, health, and work schedules, or (c) feel intimidated or shy about speaking in public forums.
In addition, public meetings are not congenial to how people prefer to engage on issues in the digital age. Today, many people participate in work, family life, relationships, and commerce through digital channels. Social media has created expectations for instant communication about everything from anywhere. Expecting community members to make room in their schedule and travel to and from a public meeting usually guarantees that only those with the strongest opinions show up. In addition, the digital era has trained people to shy away from participating in face-to-face public meetings that often feature tense debate. People who have an opinion they want to share may not attend a meeting just to avoid confrontation.
Going forward, the City of Edmonds should consider employing a process that provides multiple opportunities for citizens to meaningfully participate in major policy decisions through ongoing conversations, learning and working collaboratively with government officials–not just being asked to provide input at a few points in the process. At a minimum, traditional public meetings could be supplemented with a process to gather broader feedback from residents by reducing the barriers to involvement. To be effective, it essential for the city to utilize a range of mechanisms and avenues (one-on-one, small group, large format, virtual) to facilitate the widest possible participation. In addition, the City of Edmonds should use a multi-pronged, opt-out (rather than opt-in) approach to promote the process to engage a diverse (all views) and representative audience. The more varied the views and lived experiences that inform the city’s decision-making process, the more likely it is that the final solution will address the community’s needs and expectations. Consequently, it is more likely that the community will trust the process and accept the outcome.
My second takeaway is that Edmonds residents must assume some responsibility for the previous, ineffective process. While it was exciting to see the impact of a powerful grassroots effort, it was also unnecessarily traumatic. Although a majority appear to support the final result, the city must restart the search for appropriate emergency services and pedestrian access to the waterfront. Time and money have been spent and more time and money will be required to restart this process. In the meantime, trains will continue to run through town and the potential, while statistically small, for a life or property threatening event remains. But let’s look to the future and not assign blame for the failure. Edmonds residents must commit to continuing their involvement in the process by (a) becoming and staying informed, (b) sharing information but not misinformation, and (c) speaking out in a timely and constructive manner. The Waterfront Assessment Committee is correct that many community members were “Johnny Come Lately” to the process and not well-informed about the analyses and prior decisions. This is inexcusable going forward. While the city must assume responsibility for more effective outreach and communications processes, Edmonds residents must monitor the various news (including social media) sources and public notices and voice their opinions via whatever channels with which they are most comfortable.
Finally, both the city and residents should work towards a process that is uniting rather than divisive. We need to avoid an “us versus them” type of dialogue. We are all part of this wonderful community. A positive process will go a long way in ensuring the end result of this next chapter is one with which we might not all agree but the majority will support. To accomplish this, we need a collaborative engagement process that is a dialogue not a presentation by city officials and consultants and public input is ongoing and constructive rather than a protest rally by the residents. Everyone should both speak and listen. Ideas should be shared and discussed in an open, transparent, and ideally non-critical manner. The ongoing flow of information, insights, and opinions should take place without the grandstanding and questioning of motives that have dominated social media before and after the June 18 council meeting. Let’s start this new chapter by accepting the basic assumption that we all want what is best for Edmonds. I offer the above suggestions as a method to accomplish this.