Reader view: Equitable engagement framework not what it purports to be

The City of Edmonds has engaged a consulting firm, PRR, at a cost of $72,650, to create what it calls an “Equitable Engagement Framework” (EEF) to solicit input from those in Edmonds who it is alleged have had limited participation in the past in dialogue about public infrastructure and other city programs. In other words, the city plans to pay hand-selected groups of people to provide feedback on public programs and processes, and that feedback will be given enhanced weight, discounting a majority of voices in Edmonds… and it will be used in the planning department’s vision and plan for the next 20 years.

When a city seeks to make citywide policy, aren’t all the residents and voters together the best course for democracy, and isn’t that preferrable to paid community commentators? Why is the city not spending this $75,000 on more outreach to the entire city?

A Closer Look at the Scope of the Plan

 Because the contract with PRR was under $100,000, it did not need city council approval. Development Services DirectorSusan McLaughlin has stated that this is one of the projects she is most excited about.  The “framework” is anticipated to be completed by July 15 and, according to a document outlining PRR’s scope of work, will be utilized in updating Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan, Climate Action Plan and Transportation Plan. In fact, Ms. McLaughlin stated at the Edmonds Planning Board retreat in March that the framework will be one of her department’s key projects and that it will be used in the department’s vision and plan for the next 20 years, for the growth of the City of Edmonds (See the video from the Planning Board Retreat on March 9, 2022).

According to PRR’s document outlining the scope of work, the framework will include:

__ “Criteria to map underrepresented communities.”

__ “A model for advancing mutually beneficial relationships with community-based organizations.”

__ “This may include a compensation structure (italics mine) depending on the results of the discovery phase.”

__Principles to guide communications and engagement efforts, including a process for weighted engagement (italics mine) that address weighted impact and historical exclusion.”

Again, from the planning board retreat: Director McLaughlin represented that the project shall include 15 community interviews around the city with either community members or organizations. A key component of these interviews will be to identify what Ms. McLaughlin calls “community champions” who will be become “key resources” as Edmonds embarks on planning programs and projects for the future. She represented that the project shall include mapping underrepresented communities and determining just how underrepresented they are in our current public process. She also stated that these “champions” may be compensated for their work.

Issues of Fairness and Bias in the “Equitable Engagement Framework”

The scope-of-work document referenced above states in its opening paragraph, “The City of Edmonds consistently leads project specific community engagement and often hears from people who are white, people who own their own homes, people who use English, and people who have high incomes.” The fact that Edmonds’ government “often hears” from that demographic should come as no surprise as it describes the majority of Edmonds’ residents. Further, such a statement seeks to divide us and indicates that there is implicit bias against opinions and input from people who fit that demographic.

Who will define what the “underrepresented communities” are? This is another point where bias comes in. Who decides? Will it include older individuals with limited resources? Is it strictly a race-based equation? Which groups will be overlooked and which groups will be given priority? Further, where is the data that clearly demonstrates that “underrepresented groups” have not, in the past, been sought out for their opinions? Are we spending money to solve a problem that is not a problem?

Another concern with the EEF plan is that it will result in public input that fits a pre-determined narrative promoted by the planning department, which will in turn be given weighted influence. For instance, the planning department has shown that it favors certain outcomes for housing policy, which, according to multiple surveys, is at odds with what a great majority of Edmonds’ citizens favor. Residents have overwhelmingly expressed a desire to retain single-family zoning. Because PRR has explicitly stated that the EEF plan will be a “model for advancing mutually beneficial relationships with community-based organizations,” one cannot help but wonder if city planners desire particular points of view from public engagement and that paid “community champions” will deliver on that.

It is problematic to add money into the equation.  It turns what was a relationship for public good into a compensated transaction. Such a paid relationship has included training, according to review of literature about similar schemes. Isn’t there a danger “training” could be a point where an expectation of pre-determined narrative and feedback is encouraged?

Most disturbing is evidence that some selected voices and opinions will carry more weight than others. Phrases such as “key stakeholders,” “priority audiences (PRR will identify and conduct interviews with…priority audiences to better understand their values and priorities…”), and “Key Resources” to describe the “community champions” (from Director McLaughlin’s presentation at the planning board retreat) cannot be ignored. Will many, many other Edmonds’ voices be ignored or discounted? Although this effort was ostensibly promoted to be more inclusive, it will in practice be exclusive of the majority of Edmonds’ citizens.

Please Weigh In

It is important that Edmonds’ citizens get informed and weigh in about this proposed process, which has the potential to discount many, many Edmonds voices. If you have concerns with the “Equitable Engagement Process,” please let others know and urge them to speak up as well.

Email city council at council@edmondswa.gov

Email development services director at susan.mclaughlin@edmondswa.gov

— By Lynne Chelius

Lynne Chelius is an Edmonds resident.

36 Replies to “Reader view: Equitable engagement framework not what it purports to be”

  1. This very problematic, but par for the course. Any doctor will tell you it’s bad to be overweight.

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  2. Lynne,
    Could you please share your source for the claim that the “majority of Edmonds residents” are “people who are white, people who own their own homes, people who use English, and people who have high incomes?”

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  3. I disagree with this LTE. It’s good that the city is looking at different ways to engage all our residents! I also don’t understand the distrust with city staff. They’re the experts here.

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    1. Mary, I totally respect and appreciate your right to disagree here but I would caution you about being too impressed by what “experts” have to say before you buy into and accept their viewpoints. For one thing anyone can claim to be an “expert” about anything. For another thing, “experts”, often have a vested interest in telling the people that hire them, what they want to hear. It’s always a good idea to be skeptical when someone tells you they are an “expert” about anything. Really smart people generally realize they really don’t know very much about anything, or enough about anything at least. Part of being smart is often knowing you aren’t capable of being very smart due to the over all limitations of human knowledge and ability in general. If we were really “expert” about anything, there would be no war, famine, disease or homeless people on earth.

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      1. You’re right the only opinion that matters is that from uneducated people who have little to no knowledge in the specific subject. Since when are “experts” people not to be trusted? I want to take advice from people that are knowledgeable about what they’re talking about.

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      2. Do you actually think the City would hire “experts” without checking their qualifications? That they would just take their word for it? Please!

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        1. Yes I actually do Cathy. I suggest you look back at the Police Chief debacle and what Council Person (now President) Vivian Olson had to go thru to get the true facts out about the Mayor’s chosen Candidate for Chief at one point. Were it not for V.O. that man would be our COP right now. The man was not properly vetted by “the City” that you have so much trust in. Think whatever you want, but I like to believe my eyes and ears when I talk about “the City.” Thanks mainly to Vivian, we ended up with a great and very competent Police Chief. This is why we need to lessen Mayoral/City Staff power here and strengthen Council power and only a systemic change in government could make that a sure thing.

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        2. Within recent memory, ‘the city’ almost hired a chief of police who would not have been qualified to be hired as an Edmonds police officer. The distrust many citizens have for ‘the city’ is not unearned.

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    2. Well actually it does “mean the majority of other voices will be ignored or discounted.” They clearly state the comments/survey from the groups they solicit will receive more weight than other comments/surveys. It is a good thing to bring all Edmonds citizens into the process, but it is not right to give more weight to one group than another. That is not equality. If equity is their goal that is activism not public service. All Edmonds citizens should be heard from and equally weighted.

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  4. This is a very important citizen comment and many thanks to Ms. Chelius for writing it. Our city government has lost all control over what the parameters of running a city should include and should not include. Our mayors with their various largely unwritten powers of influence and persuasion (committees, task forces, creating directorships of things like “city development”, close personal relationships with powerful and wealthy town citizens, membership and activism in Political parties, etc.) are slowly but surly destroying whatever charm and special quality that Edmonds has possessed in the past. The little cottages, big yards, little specialty shops, simple yet usable parks, etc. are all not so gradually being replaced by something else. We should all remember that bigger isn’t always better and less is sometimes much “more” than more. We have entered an era of too much – business development, art worship, over management of simple things and just a general “too much of everything”, including an over intrusive government run by egotistical people for mostly the wrong reasons in terms of just a pleasant place for ALL of us to live. Too much social engineering, analysis, rules and over planning is not a good thing in the end and it will come back to bite us hard, if it isn’t curbed soon. When a simple thing like; no one or everyone is allowed to sleep in the city park is a big controversy; we are in big trouble here and it’s getting worse; not better.

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  5. Free input …right here…….a plethora of voices and opinions…free. And I agree with Clinton Wright.

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  6. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

    ― George Orwell, Animal Farm

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  7. Taking a small segment of the Edmonds population based on alleged “underrepresented communities,” paying them, feeding them the propaganda to vote with the city planners, and giving that vote more weight than the rest of the community to control the future of the entire City is Madness! This is not democracy, it is an authoritative government making an end run in an attempt to ignore the will of the majority of Edmonds citizens. It appears they are more focused on activism and their self-serving agenda than on public service. This is just SO wrong minded.

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    1. Paying groups of individuals to advise local government is how cities have always been run. We don’t take votes for everything the government decides to do, no one has the time or resources for that kind of democracy to work. I think you’re exaggerating the “dangers” of representative democracy.

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      1. I’ve been giving my “free” advice to local governments for years, so I’ve been under represented as far as being paid $$$ for it. Where do I sign up for the cash?

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  8. Agree with Helen. Has city government lost contact with the citizens. It would appear so.

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  9. I think sooner or later we’re going to need a series of referendums on these sort of topics to help guide our elected officials on the direction Edmonds should take. This way those who take the time to educate themselves on the topics AND vote can help provide unbiased input into the planning process. No paid consultants necessary. The only “expense ” may be that associated with educating the citizens, however, I would argue that it isn’t an expense at all, but an investment in our collective future.

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  10. I really don’t see what the problem is with reaching out to members of our community who have typically been absent from the process. I also take issue with the author’s call to action is for anyone who “has concerns” to get informed and weigh in. I call anyone who is interested in participating in their local government to get involved. Don’t let letters to the editor speak for the “majority” of Edmonds. Just because some voices may be raised doesn’t mean the majority of other voices will be “ignored or discounted”.

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  11. I have no problem with any elected officials reaching out to hear from anyone and preferably everyone in the community on their own. I do have a problem with our elected official (mayor in this case) arbitrarily deciding to spend over $70,000 of our money to hire an organization to reach out to supposed community members of his and their choosing for their opinions and possibly paying for those opinions to boot. If you don’t think that’s a possible problem with a big potential for corruption and conflict of interest, I marvel at your faith in this process which will be administered by a mayoral appointee, not someone actually elected directly by the people. We are in trouble, right here in River City, folks.

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  12. “Underrepresented groups” have, by definition, NOT been sought out for their opinion, that’s why they’re underrepresented. Not sure you’ve clearly stated why this is a problem, just fear that whites will be excluded, which makes sense given that this programs intent is to address minority populations.

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  13. Our Mayor supposedly hires highly competent Directors, but then turns around and wants paid advice from so called outside experts in the various fields of the Directors’ supposed expertise.

    How difficult would it be for our Development Director to promote neighborhood meetings herself, welcome to all who live there? Why does she require so much outside help and promote the idea of payment for participation of the so called under represented among us? Please define and tell us who these under represented people are. Are they all minorities and homeless people, or just renters or people passing through that one CP labels, ” the most vulnerable residents among us?” Is someone without an official address, really to be considered a resident and paid to give us information or advice? This is a world gone mad when you really think about it.

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  14. Thanks for writing this “Reader View”. There is much to consider and discuss.

    For example, within City Government:

    Who really represents citizens of Edmonds?

    The City Council (Legislative Branch) certainly is supposed to.

    The City Attorney certainly does not, which is why I complain loudly when City Council allows the City Attorney to intervene in a legislative process.

    How about the Mayor and his staff (Executive Branch)?

    It is at the Executive Branch level that things get muddied up. Per MRSC: “While executives often develop and propose policies, their basic responsibility is to carry out the legislative body’s directives and policies.”

    Our City Code says the mayor shall see that all laws and ordinances are faithfully enforced and that law and order is maintained in the city, and shall have general supervision of the administration of city government and all city interest.

    Wouldn’t that be nice? When the Executive Branch violates a law or an ordinance, or fails to execute the budget, City Council apparently believes it no longer has a duty to represent its constituents. For example, the failure to execute the Code Rewrite which has been budgeted for multiple times. Council’s response is to simply budget more. There is no accountability.

    As a citizen, I’ve attempted to be heard for years. It can be a ton of work. My efforts have met very limited success.

    For example, on May 17, 2022 I asked City Councilmembers during a PUBLIC Hearing to ask City Staff to publicly disclose 10 items prior to approving the 2023-2028 Six-Year Transportation Improvement Program.

    Not one Councilmember elected to represent the citizens of Edmonds bothered to ask any of the questions I requested answers to.

    Even if additional citizens can be identified and engaged with, does anybody believe they will always be listened to if they desire something different than what the Mayor and City Staff desire?

    Even our Planning Board isn’t always respected by City Staff and the City Attorney as discussed in my following Letter to the Editor and comments:

    https://myedmondsnews.com/2021/11/letter-to-the-editor-what-can-be-learned-from-a-failed-legislative-process/

    Thanks again for writing this “Reader View.”

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  15. The only way anyone gets “represented” is to demand “representation” whether politically or legally. If someone comes to you saying they want to hear from you and will even pay you to talk, you aren’t being represented, you are being manipulated for some reason, good intentions or bad. There is an attempt being made here to make this about race somehow, which it absolutely is not. It’s about running the city bottom up, not top down as it is now.

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  16. I’m still scratching my head wondering what all the hubbub is about. Any information captured through this process is intended to help inform and shape future policy decisions around “Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan, Climate Action Plan and Transportation Plan.” Wouldn’t any plan updates of this nature require additional review, open meetings, and ultimately council approval?

    I’m reading between the lines of the comments and it leads me to believe there are some folks who think there is an underhanded boogeyman pulling the strings behind the curtains. I’m just not seeing it and have to restate my disagreement with this notion.

    The City is reaching out to communities and segments of our population who have historically not been included in the conversation about OUR future direction. I applaud the efforts of the City and Staff and duly recognize they are working within their granted authority.

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    1. When my Mayor and his employee openly announce they are charging me to conduct a biased study (weighted toward the alledged under represented) where respondents may be paid for their responses and may not even have an address in town; pardon me but, yes, I’m concerned and damn angry. I will continue to call out and fight these people. I demand honest fair representation and will fight for it no matter who tries to marginalize me. That’s what we all need to do including the so called under represented among us.

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  17. Mr. Peterson,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my “Reader’s View” submission. My Edmonds News is an excellent forum to gather views and ideas from all those in Edmonds.

    I did want to get back to you on your statement that you applaud “the City and Staff”. Do you really mean to say you applaud the Mayor and Staff? Edmonds City Council did not vote to engage a consulting firm to create an “Equitable Engagement Framework” (EEF). Edmonds is a mayor-council code city. Per City Code and State law, the mayor shall be the chief executive and administrative officer of the city, in charge of all departments and employees, with authority to designate assistants and department heads. The mayor shall see that all laws and ordinances are faithfully enforced and that law and order is maintained in the city, and shall have general supervision of the administration of city government and all city interest.

    Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin has made it clear that the EEF will be used to influence policy and the future of Edmonds over many years to come. In my opinion, the huge decision to engage such a consultant should have been made by our elected City Council.

    Lynne Chelius

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    1. Hi Lynne,

      I wanted to clarify something in your comment. You stated “Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin has made it clear that the EEF will be used to influence policy and the future of Edmonds over many years to come.” What do you mean by “influence policy”? Do you mean influence policy development that goes through a variety of “influencers” along the way including official and unofficial committees, various stakeholders, and ultimately is presented to Council for consideration?

      If I thought for a moment that Director McLaughlin was looking to hire paid actors to support a predetermined policy that could be unilaterally adopted, I would have concern over the process. Snohomish County “pays” people to attend jury duty, albeit this is a requirement. They “payment” is an attempt to reduce or eliminate barriers to participate. I don’t see a lot different happening here. I have the privilege to have enough financial resources to participate in the civic discussion. Not everyone has that privilege.

      So yeah, I’m glad that someone is considering extra steps to raise the voice of members of this community that may not have previously participated.

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      1. Your Jury payment comparison just doesn’t hold water. The reason Jurors are paid anything for their services is that we don’t allow people to be forced to work for nothing. In other words the County and State can’t require people to do a job without compensating them.

        In this case the City is asking for under-represented volunteers and/or their leaders (community champions in their words) to volunteer to state their opinions about what should happen in their re-imagined neighborhoods. They can’t even tell a concerned citizen who these under-represented people actually are but they are prepared to pay them tax payer’s money to state their opinions. Sorry sir, but this is just bogus nonsense. There is no outcry from the citizens in general to have the use their streets get reimagined. This is all coming from an out of control city management campaign to turn downtown into a pedestrian walking mall with a much denser residential population base. The rest of it is just window dressing to make the scam look good.

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  18. Lynne, I totally agree with you on this. Our Mayors and staff constantly try to usurp the Legislative powers of the purse and making of policy, then get bent out of shape when our weak Council tries to assert itself in their rightful areas. It’s all just backwards to what it should be. The big question is why do we just keep putting up with this situation that gets worse with every Mayor elected? How do we stop this? There are good people in town, like Ken Reidy, Darrol Haug, and Joe Scordino who know how to do this stuff right. All I know how to do is scream about and will keep doing so.

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  19. Hopefully the result of the“Equitable Engagement Framework” (EEF) project for the Comprehensive Plan, is that 4 1/2 Council Members will throw it in the trash can, after two other CM talk about their own self virtues endlessly. The Mayor have a temper tantrum and write a LTE, and the director will go and look for greener pastures, complaining Council is full of meanies, because although she is smart she lacks wisdom.

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  20. During the Planning Board Retreat, Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin discussed her department’s key projects for 2022. It is unknown who decided and how it was decided that these were to be her department’s “Key Projects”.

    The first project Director McLaughlin discussed was the “Equitable Engagement Framework” project. She stated this project is one of the projects she listed early on after she started and is one of the projects she is most excited about.

    Director McLaughlin stated this project is mostly an internal effort to make sure we have the resources needed to lift up underserved and underrepresented communities. She did not define either underserved or underrepresented. Later in her comments she mentioned it had yet to be determined what it means to be underrepresented.

    Why contract with PRR BEFORE determining this?

    Director McLaughlin stated a need to make sure the underserved and underrepresented communities are present and apparent in our planning processes, especially as we embark on something as important as setting the next 20-year vision for the growth of the City of Edmonds. 20 years?

    Director McLaughlin represented that the project shall include 15 Community Interviews around our City with either community members or organizations.

    Director McLaughlin represented that a key point to these interviews is to identify “Community Champions”. These “Community Champions”, whether organizations or individuals, will become Key Resources that the City will go to as the City embarks on planning programs and projects.

    Question: Will all our organizations and individuals continue to be viewed as “Key Resources”, or will the Community Champions influence planning programs and projects more than the general population?

    Director McLaughlin represented that the project will include mapping underrepresented communities, determining what it means to be underrepresented and determining how underrepresented they are in our current public process.

    Director McLaughlin represented that her department is also going to look at a compensation model to make sure we have tools in our tool kit to bring the underrepresented communities into public dialogue and make sure the city reduces the barriers that may be getting these communities to be underrepresented.

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  21. Heck fire Ken, In this goofy system we (all citizens) are underrepresented. Who gives McLaughlin the right to determine who is over represented and who is underrepresented; who’s views will count more than others and who might get paid for their views and who might not? Does the fact that I’m an incurable loud mouth who says just what he thinks in print, make me among the over represented in town? Man, I took courses taught by self proclaimed Socialists at the UW who were not as ideological and openly biased as this Director, our Mayor and two of our Council Members.

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  22. Mr. Peterson…Terry,
    Every juror receives a small stipend. Imagine a jury where only certain jurors were recruited and where their opinions would be given added weight. I would not want to be a litigant in a court proceeding where there were “jury champions”.

    Of course, Edmonds residents want all opinions to be heard. There was an LTE on June 8th that spoke directly to that and suggested equitable ways in which to overcome barriers to participation in order to garner opinion from every community and neighborhood without preferential payments and weighted opinions.

    Please also read Mr. Scordino’s comment to that same June 9th letter where he says “After seeing what transpired with apparent disregard for broad public involvement and input on the update of the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (PROS) Plan, I agree that the citizens of Edmonds should be very concerned with City staff’s approach to updating the City’s Comprehensive Plan.” (The EEF will be used – my note.) It is broadly understood that months and months of massive public input was discounted and ignored under the EFF approach to the PROS plan update.

    Lynne Chelius

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