Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Council Recap: Public Engagement

Source: DALL-E

On the agenda for the November 6, 2023, Richardson City Council meeting was this item: "REVIEW AND DISCUSS STRATEGIES TO PROMOTE PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT AND INVOLVEMENT." This is less than two months when they idea of a community engagement board was raised in the Council's goal-setting meeting, and less than a month since the Council first deliberated on this matter in open session (October 16). Then I was pleased to see the Council quickly tackle this need, but I was not as pleased with the scattershot ideas the Council had. Now I hoped that maybe this month they'd be focused and align on effective approaches.

Discussion was shaped by proposals from City staff. The draft purpose and charge was still all over the map, which I expected from the divergent ideas the Council had earlier. "Advancing harmony," "encouraging inclusion and participation," "work to advance unity," "assist all stakeholders in gaining a working knowledge of the City government," "review plans, programs, projects, and services," and "assist with developing a diverse group of engaged leaders."

The simplest challenge for City staff was coming up with the makeup of the board. Nine members. Two-year terms. Eight year term limit. No one currently serving in elective office.

City staff showed they didn't have any better idea on a name for this board than the Council did. Put all permutations of the words multicultural, engagement, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility together with the word board, committee or council, and pick one. Or pick all the words for a really long name that will include every councilmember's pet vision for this board. Another thought just occurred to me — meet people where they are. Just call it Comité de Inclusión, Tanawue, and Duoyàng xìng. But check with non-English speakers first for accuracy, which would have the side benefit of taking the first step towards diversity.

City staff proposed a timeline as well: "Initial meeting of the board" in April, 2024. Certainly doable.

Now it was the Council's turn to weigh in.

Councilmember Jennifer Justice said, "I think from a purpose and sort of responsibilities standpoint, I think that you really well captured what the council said last time." Well, yeah, if a grab bag of purposes is what the Council wants. Leave it up to the new board to figure out what the Council wants, and expect wasted time as the board and Council go around and around.

Mayor Pro Tem Arefin said, "We have discussed the purpose and the role and scope quite a bit and you have pretty much added everything that initially that we can think of." Yes, they did, but it's not good to leave everything from a brainstorming session in the grab bag. Focus. Prioritize. He added, unironically, "Having a clear purpose and clear direction is important."

Councilmember Dan Barrios didn't like the words "as directed by City Council." He said he wanted a Council liaison "not to steer the conversation, but support as needed." He wanted to empower the board "to come up with their own ideas." Barrios is more and more looking like the champion of the people on this Council. If he can learn how to resist the immediate pushback he gets from certain other councilmembers, he might grow to be a force to be reckoned with.

Speaking of pushback, Mayor Bob Dubey was concerned about Barrios's suggestion. He doesn't want any board or commission taking the initiative to change the City Council's goals. He would "feel better" if the board is charged with "initiating tactics" rather than goals. That then led to City Manager Don Magner saying he didn't want any board or commission initiating tactics, either. "Tactics" are what the City Manager develops in support of the Council's "Goals." Following the hierarchy down, maybe Barrios would accept a board initiating "Tasks" in support of inherited "Tactics" in support of inherited "Goals." Know your place. Don't be initiating.

I would have thought the power of the board is sufficiently controlled by specifying that the board "shall act in an advisory capacity." To me, that means the board will have no power to issue orders, change policy, or spend money. If making that explicit makes Magner more comfortable, so be it. But Barrios should stand his ground that the board should have the latitude to give advice on any and all City policies and procedures from a diversity/equity/inclusion standpoint. Magner, on the other hand, was concerned with giving the board too much latitude to do that. I guess he really doesn't want a board poking around in his own business. Mayor Dubey and Magner are more and more looking like the persons who want to keep members of the public on this board on a short leash.

My recommendation to the new board is to operate the way the City Manager does. He is careful to introduce any subject on the Council agenda with words to the effect that "This is in support of the Council's Goal such and such." As long as the community engagement board adopts a similar practice, they should be on solid ground.

Councilmember Ken Hutchenrider objected to using the word accessibility in the board's name. To me, accessibility means the degree to which a service or facility is usable by all persons, including but not limited to persons with disabilities. Hutchenrider objecting to the board caring about that, if it senses a problem there, is misguided.

Councilmember Curtis Dorian, again helpfully agreeing, said he liked the name "Community Inclusion and Engagement Commission. I think that says it all and includes accessibility."

Hutchenrider also wanted to have more than one councilmember as liaison. Mayor Pro Tem Arefin said his impression is that "at least initially it's going to be all the councilmembers will be involved." Dorian concurred.

Mayor Dubey summed up the Council's deliberations clearly and succinctly: "I know we don't have an official 100% thumbs-up but I think we kind of landed collectively on a Community Inclusion Engagements something and maybe you're going to add Diversity to that one statement, possibly like a 'diverse, inclusive and engaged community.' Or commission. I don't know." All clear? Magner said he'll have an ordinance drafted for the Council to act on at the November 13th meeting.

One thing the Council didn't even contemplate was how they might measure the success of this new board. How will they measure whether the community, all segments of the community, are, you know, engaged? That's the goal isn't it? Personally, I'll look at one measure overall. That's whether the diversity on the City Council itself begins to look like the diversity of the City has a whole. I'll reiterate something I said in October: the single-most important change the City of Richardson could make to increase diversity on City Council itself would be to adopt single-member voting districts. The Richardson ISD did this, and within one complete electoral cycle, the voters in the five single-member districts elected two Blacks, two Hispanics, and one white trustee to represent the five districts. The public was naturally engaged by this systemic change, unlike continual exhortations to "Get engaged, get engaged, get engaged" which fall on deaf ears.

"A month's swift passage,
From scattershot to focus,
Engagement in view?"
—h/t ChatGPT

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