Government & Politics
 

It’s not enough to ban fakery at Council hearings; we need a real Community Participation Program

The news that actors paid to support Entergy’s request for a new power plant filled the City Council chambers at the expense of everyday residents is completely unacceptable.  Stifling the voice of the people in any manner is intolerable.  When that is accomplished by shutting residents out of the conversation and replacing them with paid actors, it is even more appalling.

New Orleans faces any number of complex issues, and as our new mayor has emphasized repeatedly, it will require all of us coming together to resolve them.  This must include making room for a wide variety of viewpoints.

However, the public conversation simply cannot be controlled –  or, even worse, co-opted – by any one player or point of view.  Only when we come together with all voices, listen respectfully, and identify shared objectives can we find the common ground necessary to build our shared future.  We may disagree on some of the details —  and building unity can be very hard work — but if we assume we all want New Orleans to be a great city, this is exactly the type of work we must do.

All of us.

This situation also points out once again why we so desperately need a true Community Participation Program (CPP) in New Orleans.  These structures, which have helped cities as disparate as Birmingham, Alabama, Portland, Oregon, and Atlanta to thrive in ways that New Orleans still does not, provide the exact type of public forums for these conversations.  More information about these programs, and what has been proposed for New Orleans, can be found at www.nolacpp.org.

Lacking this structure, we have few opportunities for providing public input to vital, difficult decisions, like the Entergy power plant.  This creates packed public meetings full of anxious and often angry residents.  Many times, decisions are made before these meetings are even held.  And even when the decision is yet to be made, the meetings frequently devolve into disrespectful shouting matches — which does nothing to promote a thoughtful decision-making process.

And as we have now seen, these meetings can be completely co-opted; residents can be excluded by paid shills; and the voice of the people can be completely usurped.

In its report on this situation, The Lens indicated that it could not find any laws that prohibit paying actors from flooding public meetings.  Free speech laws are critical, and any legislation that would prohibit this course of action would have to be crafted very, very carefully.  Indeed, it may be impossible to create such a law that would not violate Constitutional guarantees of free speech.

Given this challenge, a better solution is to move forward aggressively with implementing a strong, inclusive Community Participation Program.  This creates multiple opportunities for meaningful community input. It authenticates the stakeholders in any situation; ensures that resident input is well informed and received by government before decisions are made, It also enables the community to track the entire decision-making process.

Typical CPP meetings are held at the neighborhood level, at times and locations convenient to residents.  Like the current City Planning Neighborhood Participation Program (NPP), the meetings are mandated to take place prior to government making decisions.  Unlike the NPP meetings, however, the full CPP structure will provide additional opportunities for residents to be informed about the issues at hand, before and after the meetings.  Professional staff will be available to facilitate meetings, ensuring that they stay focused, respectful and productive.

While such meetings will be open to all, having the meetings at the neighborhood level will ensure that those people most affected by any proposal will absolutely be able to participate.  Sign-in sheets will further verify who was present and what their connection is — making it much more difficult to “stack the room” with paid or unpaid outside supporters.

Finally, the same staff will be available to help residents track how their input is used throughout the decision-making process, and to keep them informed of any additional meetings on the topic.  They can also assist residents in preparing and submitting written comments.

Mayor Cantrell and the new City Council have made strong commitments to move forward with the CPP.  Let’s all work together to finalize, adopt and implement the best possible CPP for New Orleans.  And let’s get started now.

Keith Twitchell is the President of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, and has worked actively towards the establishment of a permanent community participation structure in New Orleans for many years.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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About Keith Twitchell

Keith Twitchell has served as president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans since 2004. He was worked on city budgeting issues since shortly after Katrina, and spoken at national conferences on Participatory Budgeting.