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Letter to the Editor: Failure of ‘What Next Alexandria’

— I originally welcomed the opportunity to participate in a series of meetings to improve public participation in city governance. The “What’s Next Alexandria” initiative was billed as a conversation on civic engagement, how Alexandrians can best participate in public decisions that shape the city and reach agreement on principles that will guide civic engagement. This was a blatant attempt by city officials to quell the divisive debates surrounding the Waterfront Plan and the Beauregard Small Area Plan.

I was hoping for more given the length of time, city support and funding for the initiative. I was hoping the series of meetings would outline a process that would fundamentally improve public outreach, civic involvement, and collaboration. Instead, after nearly a year, the Preliminary Draft Handbook contains general guidelines and principles that are nice but do little to improve the current process. The handbook advocates principles of behavior, city staff monitoring of the civic engagement process and recommending improvements, recruiting community members to play supportive roles and providing facilitation training, all of this pales in contrast to what could have been.

The city currently engages the community often not in a constructive manner. Consequently, citizens feel decisions have already been made and commenting is futile. Citizens are not actively engaged in identifying issues, considering and understanding options, working with staff to resolve issues. Instead hard and fast timetables are set by city staff with limited or no consultation with the community; a variety of meetings (uncoordinated) are scheduled; often with short notices, in rapid succession, with no agendas, and limited public input. Meetings with the citizens are often dominated by staff presentation and they evolve into meetings informing the community of progress being made by staff and actions taken by various commissions. This treatment leads to frustration, ramped up criticism of city officials and a breakdown of the public participation process.

I suggest the city not waste any more time or money on the Handbook. Staff was given an impossible task given the very limited scope of the public initiative started in September 2012. The handbook is disappointing and not a major achievement.

Time and money would be better spent taking the information gathered at the meetings, recognize major dissatisfaction with current process. I suggest “What’s Next” include a recommendation creating a taskforce to evaluate the current process, consider alternatives for improvement and make recommendations on reasonable steps to reduce costs, confusion, delays and improve participation and the quality of citizen involvement. After several years of contentious debates on land use and planning issues that divided the community, a more serious effort is needed to improve public participation making Alexandria a more attractive and livable community.

Harnessing public involvement and support on issues important to the community is a difficult task. It is not easy. But it should not be so easily set aside with a handbook espousing platitudes that have little impact on improving civic involvement and participation.

Dave Cavanaugh

Alexandria