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It’s all part of a game
Jack Balshaw 8/2/01

Whether it's a private sector company or a public body that wants to implement a potentially controversial new plan or process, there's a technique called, "Don't give them lead time" that's often used. The basic feature of this technique is for the originating body to fully develop their proposal with little or no information getting out to those who will be affected by its implementation.

In the instance I will discuss, our City council is the originating body and the proposal is developing new, sliding scale (the more you use the more you pay per gallon), water rates. These comments would apply equally to any other proposal such as placing a bond issue or assessment for street improvements on the ballot.

To fully develop the proposal, studies that take months are performed by staff or consultants and the results are discussed at length internally. A plan deemed "tolerable" to those most likely to object is then developed. When the council thinks the time is right, they present a bare bones outline to the public and schedule the subject for hearings in the near future.

The intended results are usually that the lack of details in the initial bare bones description doesn't cause much public concern. Without public concern and discussion, nothing more is heard about the proposal until the official public hearing is held. At that time, the city and its staff or consultant can present a thoroughly developed plan, complete with charts and lots of numbers. This plan will have the tacit, if not "official", endorsement of the major decision makers.

The public hearing will open and/or close with endorsement of the plan by a number of organized citizens to show public support for the proposal. In between, numbers of independent and unorganized (disorganized even) citizens will express concern or opposition to the proposal.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of lead time to study the details of the proposal and develop a community response, most of the presenters will seem inarticulate, petty and uninformed in comparison to the staff presentations. They won't have charts, they won't have numbers and they won't have visual aids. Also, the nature of public hearings precludes much of a dialogue between the interested public and the official body.

What usually happens is that the public is individually allowed to perform a monologue of sorts AT the council while council and staff sit there mostly mute. The public being, by definition, laymen and non-professionals, usually presents disjointed questions as their comments. These questions, if answered at all, are often addressed after the close of the public hearing when no rebuttal can be made to staff and council responses to the questions.

Council and staff will pick and choose which questions to address and, since no one is keeping track, only those whose question didn't get answered will notice. Those whose questions weren't either fully or directly answered will passively accept those answers.

At the end of the process, the council will make some minor adjustments to the proposal to show they were "listening" to the public and then proceed to pass their pre accepted version.

This water rate approval is tentatively scheduled for between October and December. Most people won't realize it has been done or notice much change in their water bills until next summer when it's too late to speak up. At the most, if they remember, they can respond at the next election, but even then it might not make much difference.

Any lack of "lead time" in issues that deserve community discussion should be viewed as an attempt to slip something through that might not otherwise stand up to the glare of public scrutiny.



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