Monday, January 06, 2014

Controlling public meetings amounts to controlling outcomes

As we rapidly approach one of the first announced community meetings on "the Amp" bus rapid transit system connecting East Nashville and Downtown to West End, the Mayor's minions continue to insist (debatably) that the public has been given fair opportunities to address the questions of when and where rapid transit will go. The Mayor himself disqualified North Nashville from the process, saying that we should have read his mind and kissed the ring years in advance if we wanted to be considered worthy of rapid transit.

The Chamber of Commerce (which supports Amp) hired a lawyer-up public relations firm, which suggests to me that these meetings are going to be more bully pulpits for making the sale of AMP than they are open town hall meetings for gathering input from you and me.

Metro has a particularly heavy-handed history of conducting community meetings, whether it be holding meetings at days and hours inconvenient for most people to attend, not plainly specifying in published agendas that certain questions were up for discussion, couching issues in specialized jargon that makes average heads spin or strictly controlling how questions are asked to discourage messy democracy. These tactics become especially nasty given the strong executive form of Metro government, where voters have very little influence after elections on the Mayor's Office.

I've documented over and again here the draconian tactics that are used in the planning and rezoning process by Metro officials, but I went back through my emails people have sent me from community meetings they attended to find more examples.

One that stands out was related to me by Mike Peden. Last winter CM Edith Langster, empowered by a couple of developers and Metro Planning, filed a Midtown rezoning request to allow a number of properties to be exempted from a compromise supported by the community in 2012 to prepare for overlays consistent with the Midtown Community Plan. Community plans are heavily influenced by participatory public meetings periodically held.

Leaders in the community expressed concern by email about Langster's bill. Metro Planning held a community meeting last March and CM Jason Holleman encouraged constituents to attend saying of Langster's proposal that it would not provide "protections for individually National Register Eligible/National Register Listed buildings and design guidelines will not be included for the area around Elliston Place".

Mike attended the meeting and related what he witnessed:

The room was packed. Several people had to stand.

The attorney from the Planning Office that spoke is clearly in favor of ... CM Langster’s proposed rezoning. He spoke as if that bill has already passed.

There were several questions raised about transit and MTA, but he made it clear he was not going to discuss that issue.

Jason Holleman attempted to ask questions but the attorney from Planning would not allow him to speak. He said that is why they requested everyone write questions on the cards so he would not have to get into a one-on-one discussion with anyone

Community plans always involve discussions about transit options, so why should they be prohibited by a lawyer in a community meeting? Less than a month later a Metro Planning spokesperson would tell a Vanderbilt writer of a "cultural shift" prompting zoning changes in Midtown that included the need to "cut down expenditures on gas". If planners can bring up transit as a motivator for their policies, why can't the community raise the question with planners in community meetings?

Also, requiring questions on note cards is just another way of keeping the unwashed masses at arm's length. And shutting down a council member with questions about impact on design and preservation seems extreme.

But these are the kind of tactics you have to watch out for in the upcoming community meetings, which they tell you now are about getting more of your input. Will they listen and incorporate input? Given the track record, I am not a believer.

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