Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sunday meetings, public participation, and municipal democracy.

Following an ecstatic farewell party (a three-hour acoustic jam/ sing along) and an emotional departure from Dancing Rabbit, I’ve begun to settle back into the read—write –meet—re-write rhythm of academic life in Champaign, Illinois. I’ve had more trouble than I anticipated leaving DR; even the uncomfortable summer heat feels hotter “off the farm.” Thankfully, my academic advisor is pretty enthusiastic about integrating intentional community and ecovillage life into my research, and I intend to run (briskly) with the opportunity!

This afternoon, while seated alone in a vacuous, air-conditioned computer lab, surrounded by droves of humming Dell desktops, I skimmed through academic articles describing the unfortunate state of public participation in American and British planning processes. One after another decries the inefficient, unjust, often self-legitimating public hearings that strip citizens of any efficacy in their local government. One author, Kathleen Halverson of Michigan Technical University, explains that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. That is, citizens ought not have to strain themselves to arrive and sit through a meeting, their opinions ought to be heard and acknowledged, they ought to engaged in (at least) two-way dialogue, and they ought to feel as if their contributions have made a difference in the outcome of the proceedings. Attend most municipal public hearings, and the critiques of Halverson and many other authors become instantly evident.

Contrast this with the Dancing Rabbit Sunday meeting. I hadn’t until a few days ago considered the Sunday meeting a form of public participation. Perhaps its lack of Robert’s Rules of Order and its unquestionable relevance to daily life in the community clouded the comparison. I think it’s worth a blog entry to discuss why the Sunday meeting seems to work so well.

Each Sunday at 12:30, Dancing Rabbit members, residents, and visitors of all sorts gather in the common house to discuss the week in preview, or “the WIP.” Sitting in a circle, dressed in their daily casual attire (shirtless perhaps), the Rabbits begin with an open call for announcements. People announce anything from lost items, to found items, to surplus garlic they’ve harvested and are willing to sell, to a workshop they’re offering the following weekend. Ah yes, and just in case someone realizes they’ve forgotten to announce something important, they have another chance at the end of the meeting to let everyone know that there’ll be a work party to fix the mailboxes after the meeting. After announcements, the meeting shifts to “Guests and Tours” during which hosts announce the guests that will be arriving in the coming week. This, I imagine serves a dual purpose: 1) to avoid confusion about strangers walking around and 2) to make sure that guests aren’t greeted with confusion. This also explains why one woman, who had no official association with my arrival at DR, knew my name, “You must be Robby,” the instant I left my car back in June. This is followed up with a list of people “Off the farm” or who’s leaving the village during the week, also an important undertaking as to avoid any unwarranted worry or search party.

Next, important events and committee meetings are announced for each day of the week. Finally, a similar discussion revolving around car usage lists the day, departure/arrival time, and destination of the three cooperative vehicles. This allows members to schedule their use of the cars AND to notify drivers of potential errands that they can help with. If, for example, Joe was scheduled to drive into town on Tuesday afternoon, I could ask him to pick up a box of nails for me. I would, of course, share the cost of fuel with Joe.

After the WIP is finished, members sometimes engage in potentially more important business meetings, during which members discuss and decide on issues such as community energy production and grid connections—a topic that was decided during my stay.

Although I did not take attendance or count the number of members present, the “participation rate” at the DR Sunday meeting was probably about 80 percent of active members. Far exceeding the paltry, undocumented participation rate in Champaign, Illinois, a city of over 75,000 residents. Even if every seat of the City Council Chambers were filled, participation would still lag behind that of DR. I feel safe in extending this reality to most other American municipalities. It’s certainly not because Champaign residents have no stake in the proceedings. I’ve witnessed multi-million dollar investments and major ordinances pass the city council without a single public comment.

Let’s take Halverson’s requirements—that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. Without venturing too far into criticizing the City of Champaign, for which I serve as a public appointee, let’s take a look at why Sunday meetings attract such a robust crowd. First of all, it seems as though the Sunday meeting is a great place to catch up with neighbors and friends. Indeed, it’s not hard to run into other people at DR—most everyone spends the day outdoors and there are wonderful common spaces. But some people remain pretty isolated to their work, so it’s nice to know that you can see your neighbors face to face at least once a week. Residents have to make the tumultuous journey of 1,500 feet (maximum) to arrive at the meeting at which they can wear whatever clothes they want. They sit in a circle, know they’ll have an opportunity to speak, and they’ll receive a response if they need it. They information they gain at the meeting is usually relevant to their daily lives and if it’s not, it could become relevant later.

Contrast this with a traditional municipal meeting that is usually scheduled on a weekday evening- sometimes during work hours. You stand before officials you probably don’t know. They look down on you from an elevated and decorated podium. They have no obligation to respond to you and while you’re guaranteed an opportunity to speak, you’re limited to a relatively short amount of time (yes, I’ve been effectively “shut up” at a plan commission meeting before). The matters of discussion are often esoteric, presented in legal jargon, and publicly televised, so don’t trip or stutter or ask a question that might spur the perception that you’re ignorant or uninformed! And this is only if you choose to attend in the first place. More than likely, the decision has been made a meetings prior to the public hearing by very qualified professionals (in the case of Champaign) or by corrupt politicians (in the case of Chicago). The silence at the municipal meetings I’ve attended are, on one hand, a sign that the professionals at the City are doing their job well. I really think they are. Having worked with them, I am convinced they are some of the brightest professionals around. But they are entrenched in a system that discourages dynamic public discourse. Public participation is, by design(?), an intimidating and uncomfortable process. I don’t think it should be this way.

The contrast between DR Sunday meetings and the municipal public meetings I’ve witnessed provokes all sorts of questions: at what scale and about which topics should weekly public meetings engage? Could a city of 75,000 conduct a “Sunday meeting” with facilitators that change from week to week? At what cost should public officials try to “engage” residents that don’t have an immediate moneyed interested in a topic? Where should public meetings be held? What should the layout of the room be? What are the merits of having an elevated podium in the first place. I certainly don’t think that a city of 75,000 or even 1,000 could conduct their public meetings like a 50 person ecovillage. But I do think there are lessons to be learned regarding conditions that make for a healthy democracy.


  1. Robby,

    This is interesting and, in DR jargon, "up" for the community right now. Our process team has already begun to consider if, with the village around 50 members as it is, the WIP is too time-consuming and could be improved (eg moved from face-to-face to a digital environment, facilitated by folks who can keep things moving). I suspect that at 100 members - maybe even at 80 - the WIP as it is would stop meeting one or more of the criteria you mentioned.

    We also have a committee looking at the future of our Sunday business meetings, and our decision making processes as a whole, as we continue to expand our membership. I think it would be informative and helpful for this committee to look at academic writing like the piece by Halverson and I wonder if you'd be willing to send me that name of the article, or even the text itself. (Although I'm not on either of these committees I'm writing about, Brian is practically a glutton for academic writing, and he's on this one so it definitely will be read and taken into account. Also, just as a member, I of course have the opportunity to participate in this discussion at some level, which might actually be your point.)

    An opinion that I hold about the four criteria presented (deliberative, satisfying, comfortable, convenient) is that they interact dynamically and must keep each other in check. At some point, meetings can be so deliberative that they loose hope of being convenient (in terms of time management) or satisfying - at least looking at the scope of a single meeting. There is also an extent to which disagreement among friends and neighbors will always be a little uncomfortable. (This is definitely true for me and also, I think, for others who tend towards conflict-avoidant personalities.) And then there is the unavoidable truth that no meeting - no process for having meetings - can be all (four) things to all people.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Robby, and for your delightfully readable writing style. This is an interesting and important topic for me and I'm up for more conversation and correspondence about it.


  2. Hey Lily,

    I'm glad you're interested. I'll send those articles to you right away!