Rethinking civic participation


What would a 21st century town hall meeting look like? Is there a better way to hold public meetings than to give each person three minutes at a microphone to have their say?

The city of Bell, California, might have some of the answers.

Two years ago, Bell was not a city that would have come to the top of a list for good examples of local government. It is a city that gained national notoriety when the LA Times helped expose institutionalized corruption among the government leaders. Officials were taking unheard of salaries for a city with less than 40,000 people, and the city was going bankrupt while those who were supposed to be public servants raked in the cash.

The exposure of city hall’s corruption led to resignations, legislative reforms, and eventually a new slate of government officials. The new city council re-envisioned how government interacted with the public in the wake of such a huge betrayal of trust by shaking up┬áthe old idea that “the public is stupid.”

Yes, the words of infamous public servant Ron Swanson of the NBC show “Parks and Recreation” — “I hate the public. The public is stupid.” — lay out a sad truth about local leaders’ feelings. More than 75 percent of city officials said in a 2010 survey that words they would use to characterize the public include single-issue, narrow-minded, and stupid.

Could that be because the typical setup for interaction between local government and citizens creates a battle zone? A group of panelists at a recent Hudson Institute event argued that rethinking civic participation, like Bell did, helps create an environment where city officials come to see public input as an asset, not an annoyance.

Ana Maria Quintana, one of the five new Bell city council members, explained the revised approach city government took in the shadow of previous officials’ scandal and a looming budget crisis. They set a calendar of budget meetings that heavily involved public input in new ways. People who came to the meetings learned the current state of the city budget, talked in small groups about ideas for the next budget, and shared their input about what was important for the city. The more than six-month process resulted in a unanimously-adopted budget that started to tackle the financial crisis and earned widespread public approval.

Bell could be a template for other cities. Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, thinks there is already a “quiet revolution” in the way local government operates. Peterson said the old “three minutes at the mic” method invited confrontation and a lack of thoughtful dialogue. New formats for public meetings, on the other hand, give good lessons to city officials and attendees. City hall learns that it does not have all of the solutions or expertise for problems, Peterson said, and the public learns that the job facing local officials is not an easy one. Having a dialogue about solutions to problems helps build relationships between people in the community. A new sense of community identity can also form when more people are involved in talking about values for their city.

This approach has worked so far in Bell. Maybe it’s time for other cities, even those not recovering from a scandal or facing a budget crisis, to rethink their interaction with the public, too.

Sunlight has written about Bell before, and we’re glad to learn the new city leadership is setting high standards for working with the public and being transparent. We’ll be keeping an eye out for other cities that are rethinking the governance process, and we hope to highlight more news in the changing relationship between cities and the public.