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 email@example.com
Email development services director at firstname.lastname@example.org
— By Lynne Chelius
Lynne Chelius is an Edmonds resident.