Opinion: Annabelle Fisher
I attended the first "What's next Alexandria" community dialogue meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15th. Needless to say, this was not a "kumbaya" moment by some residents in attendance and I know I requested that the agenda be changed wherein Mayor Euille said "no" and another resident attempted to state that it appeared there would be no public input and no residents in attendance would be heard until several future meetings had been completed. Surprise, surprise, especially since this "city agenda" is about "engaging and listening" to citizen concerns and questions. This controlled city hall meeting was about the poll the city had emailed and/or mailed to citizens and businesses wherein they received about 1500 responses. The results of this "poll" were biased and leaning towards more citizen input via the city's website and/or other electronic venues. Not everyone has access to computers or other electronic tools. If anything, this should have been a survey, not a poll as polls are used for political reasons and a survey certainly lends for more objective results and comments. Having taken the poll, it was clear what city staff was looking for and already knew what citizen concerns were and currently believe that city hall and our elected officials have not been listening to many of us who have been involved with community issues over the past few years and the complete lack of trust in our elected leaders along with city staff. No surprise here.
I found Dr. Lukensmeyer's presentation to be disappointing, generic and somewhat elementary considering her experience as a community coordinator who has done these community meetings in various cities, i.e., Portland, Oregon, Washington, D.C. along with advising various political leaders. As a professional who has had experience providing trainings and group presentations, I know I want to know ahead of time about the group composition, cultural backgrounds if appropriate, major issues of concern along with the environment and location for these presentations. For whatever reason, I can only conclude that either City Manager Young, Mayor Euille and/or other city staff did not talk with Dr. Lukensmeyer prior to the meeting and ask her if she needed any information about the group and Alexandria and/or Dr. Lukensmeyer felt she didn't need to speak with city staff prior to her presentation. It was clear that she knew little about Alexandria, the major issues that are of concern to many citizen activists and the reason for this "community dialogue meeting" and was there to discuss what she has done in other cities, national political issues and a brief slide presentation of community meetings she has assisted with in D. C. and N.Y. along with updating the polling results. One needs to remember that Alexandria taxpayers paid Dr. Lukensmeyer $3,000 to speak for 40 minutes. Not a bad deal since her presentation didn't provide new insights/ information for the majority of residents in attendance including some new residents who attended. I heard these comments from us "regular citizen activists" along with some new residents who attended.
According to the agenda, there was supposed to be time for brief Q&A, but this did not happen. Why? If city hall wants to hear from citizens and begin some kind of discussion, then citizens should have had the opportunity to ask questions. One could read the poll results on the city website along with citizen comments. Per usual, citizens sat at various tables with the usual city staff members at each table acting as the facilitators and citizen writing out answers to three specific questions on postusms which were attached to large white paper boards. Sound familiar? The majority of concerns expressed by most of those citizens present was that we want more respect from city hall and that our views are heard. Isn't this just common sense and honesty for civic engagement that our elected officials already know we want along with City Manager Young and his staff. Mayor Euille and City Manager Young and his staff already know this and we do process "everything here in Alexandria" so that city staff and our elected officials can continue to pretend they're listening to us about issues we want to discuss and resolve. This "process poll" was a waste of time. What's important is not the continued process Alexandria elected officials seem to think they need to do, but a change in attitude and behaviors from our elected officials and senior city staff as it relates to "listening and engaging" citizens with reasonable outcomes. Of course we are all not going to agree on everything, but it is rather frustrating to talk with department managers and the mayor/council who often ask good questions about various issues, but when it comes time to take a vote, several council members back off and vote for something they have stated they have problems with. It will be interesting to see what the "new council" with only two (2) new members will do. Let's hope the next council will show some "back bone" and stand up and vote for/against issues they verbalize at council meetings.
I have participated in these so-called "community meetings" while living in Seattle and in D.C. as well. This civic engagement process is not new and the results of these "community meetings" is another "feel good" meeting for city hall staff and elected officials with no new outcomes or changes in policy.
Only one citizen was involved in working with this "What's Next Alexandria", Alan Lomax. who apparently has some background in community organization. Why weren't more citizens involved and who wrote the "Poll" questions, specific wording and decided to do a "poll" rather then a survey which is much more objective rather than "political poll" being controlled by city hall? This was a "red flag" for me and I suspect for other citizens. City staff always write the agendas for various advisory groups so that they can continue to control these meetings even though they say they want to hear alternative suggestions.
Did this first "Community Dialogue" succeed? No. I would suggest that Mayor Euille, City Manager Young and other city staff drop this "engagement issue", vote on its demise at one of the Council meetings in December, 2012. If our elected officials and city staff are really serious about engaging all citizens, then let the "regulars" and the new citizens meet with various department administrators, City Manager Young and his staff and developers if appropriate and begin a discussion with them regarding citizen/community concerns and hopefully work out sensible solutions. Eliminate the "middle guy", i.e. most advisory groups and some boards/commissions. Not everyone will be happy, but at least we can attempt to negotiate and resolve matters that are important to all residents who live in various neighborhoods throughout Alexandria. Or, just be honest and transparent with us and put your agenda "on the table" now.