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What If You Need a Town Planning Decision Supported by (Almost) Everyone?


This is the second in a series of entries in which members of the Center for Adaptive Solutions (CAS) share examples of how our different disciplines contribute to the resolution of complex problems by working with the whole system.  This month’s theme is town planning and community engagement.

My entry looks at how to use more effective meetings to engage all the town’s stakeholders in arriving at a final decision.  In this situation the system consists of all registered voters in a New England town who must agree on a complex town planning decision: the building of a new school and the potential de-commissioning of an existing school.

Final decisions will be made by the whole community through a town meeting and subsequent voting.  The process is guided by an appointed committee that reports to the town board of selectmen which approves the proposals to be brought to the town meeting, although citizen groups can and sometimes do offer competing proposals.

Challenge: Ten Years without Agreement

For 10 years, the town had been unable to make a decision regarding the need for a new school.  Several committees had brought proposals to town meeting for approval only to be rejected.  In the most recent attempt, the school building committee’s proposal was defeated when an ad hoc group of citizens offered a competing and presumably less expensive proposal.

Building a school is one of the most expensive undertakings a town can take on.  It will affect the property taxes of every resident.  Good schools are important to everyone, but at what cost?  Meanwhile there are competing needs for town resources, and in this case pressing needs for a senior center and new recreation fields.  The stakeholders in this effort (the members of this system) included parents, senior citizens, the school administration and teachers, and every town taxpayer (some of whom were very concerned about any increase in their tax rates).  Finally, the state was a stakeholder too as they would (hopefully) agree to fund a significant portion of the building project if it met state guidelines and priorities.

Critical variables in this picture included the lack of suitable town-owned land, a desire to reuse existing school property/buildings if this was feasible, and the importance of minimizing the impact on current school children.  And then there was the big variable of cost and what the state might cover or not.

Approach: Open the Process Up to Engage More of the Stakeholders

To change ten years of failed efforts, the first step was to involve a wide range of stakeholders in the planning committee.  While this committee did not include the “whole system” it did include a wide range of views—not only those wanting better schools for their children, but also those whose commitment to a new school was tempered by any impact on local taxes.  This committee was to be a microcosm of the whole town which made it unusually large and required good facilitation and leadership just to keep it together and moving forward.  (Fortunately it had excellent, patient leadership from its chair, Ellen Sturgis, and a great co-facilitator, Rob Kaufman).

Over many weeks of meeting together, committee members were able to share their perspectives and share how their own thinking was evolving.  They got to know each other and develop some basis for arriving at consensus. Individuals were respected for their views even when they were “different.”  What helped this process was the time spent together, good facilitation, and the “simple” decision to not begin taking any formal votes for some months.  In time, the committee was ready to add technical expertise and eventually hired consulting architects with expertise in school building projects.

All of this committee work, however, would likely be wasted if the whole town was not informed and involved in shaping the decisions in a different way than had been true before.  Some means had to be developed to keep the process open to the whole town in a way that supported the committee’s ongoing work.  This was my role: to design a process to help the committee engage the town as a whole in a way that would lead to a productive decision.

Special Town Forums Make It Possible to Engage Everyone in the Process.  To engage the community effectively, we used the nine months leading up to the town meeting to conduct a series of four, specially designed meetings or “town forums”  open to the whole town.  These forums were designed to:

  • Update the town on the progress of the committee’s thinking, one step at a time by breaking the content into more accessible pieces and providing a framework for a complex discussion.
  • Gather the community’s comments in a timely way to influence the committee’s ongoing work.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for people to get engaged.
  • Let the town see that each person on the committee – including some person who they identified with for their views – was invested, committed and bought into committee and the process.
  • Demonstrate the openness and structure of a process of information and decisions that would evolve over time to a limited set of final choices.

What was most important about these “forums” was that they were obviously not structured like the usual town committee hearings.  Such hearings followed a typical form with committee members behind a table making presentations and fielding questions “thrown” at them by attendees.  Such meetings were often contentious with “sides” and people trying to “score” points for their views while the committee tried to maintain control.  By comparison, community forums were designed to build engagement, not just advocacy (and opposition), and to promote conversations rather than manage positions or “win” some point.

The innovative, if simple design of these forums emphasized the following characteristics:

  • Short presentations
    • So information was short and to the point so there was plenty of time for town participants to get engaged with the information provided
  • Presentations were always followed by some opportunity for participants to engage with each other and individual committee members
    • So participants had a chance to check out their thinking in a smaller group before “lobbing” some query at the committee in public.
  • Presentations and answers to most questions handled by committee members, not the architects
    • So it was community member to community member
  • Meetings began and ended on time, and were kept to a reasonable duration
    • So as to be respectful to all.
  • There was a special room set-up to spread out information, expertise and participation.
    • Chairs placed around the room
    • Information displays placed around the room
    • Microphones were brought to participants – rather than having participants go to a stand at the front of the room.  This meant that participants had to look around at each other as they raised questions, making it more of a conversation among the community, not just between the questioner and the committee member.

There were four town forums with an average attendance of 60 (in a town of 5000) plus those who watched at home via local cable TV.  Across these forums, the options and information became increasingly more specific.  At the last forum, the options being discussed were very close to the final proposal to be put to the whole town at annual town meeting.

Results: Overwhelming Approval of the Plan

At the annual town meeting, the committee’s final proposal was presented.  This meeting had very heavy attendance with hundreds of voters present.  After a relatively brief presentation and discussion from the floor, the motion to approve the school building proposal passed on a voice vote.  At a special town election a week later, the proposed plan for the school building passed again by an overwhelming margin.

What Went Right?

The point here is not so much that a particular building project was approved, but that a divided town system was now able to come together with broad support for a formerly contentious decision.  How?  Through broad engagement, step by step within the committee and through multiple, carefully designed town-wide meetings.  Throughout this process, the whole system was present and information as well as process was transparent.  People were engaged in a different dialogue by design that enabled new meaning and agreements to evolve around what previously had been an intractable planning problem.  The final solution reflected much of the learning from this process and the town as a whole was wiser about its choices.

Next Up. The next entry in this month’s series looks at how collaborative, whole system methods also are important in a difficult local community situation, but Clarissa’s example focuses on a smaller, more personal situation with a parent advocacy group.


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