Business as Usual Sidelines Citizens

Rick Cole, an expert on planning issues, is a former Pasadena mayor who was recently chosen to be Azuza city manager

Who will decide Ventura's future? Will you?

Timely questions, because the Ventura City Council is considering revising the city's official General Plan, starting with a rethinking of the community's strategic vision.

In most California communities, a handful of activists and special interests dominate these kind of planning efforts. This is not the result of sinister plotting. Virtually everyone sincerely supports more "input" into plans by the "general public." But their business-as-usual approach usually relegates citizens to the sidelines.

Ventura is exploring a different approach. Last month community leaders invited several veterans of General Plan revisions in other communities to speak to a public meeting of the Vision Steering Committee made up of Ventura council members, commissioners and staff. They are working to spark widespread participation by Ventura's more than 100,000 residents and businesspeople. I shared some key lessons I've learned for involving the public in a successful community planning effort:

* Input is not enough. Most cities hold public hearings to seek citizen opinions but ultimately pay little attention to what they hear. In fact, author and former Missoula, Mont., Mayor Dan Kemmis says that "public hearings are the place in American society where no one listens." It's easy for environmentalists to get up and say, "No more growth." Or for developers to say, "Don't restrict my rights." Or for neighbors to say, "No more traffic." But it's not opinions that count, it's informed judgments. That takes rolling up your sleeves and participating with everyone else in solving together the tough challenges facing a diverse community such as Ventura.

* Look at the whole picture. City planners are trained in land-use issues. But a community's future is not just shaped by the color codes on a zoning map. How good are the local schools? How easy is it to open a business? Do families feel safe at the neighborhood park? Real people are interested in the whole range of issues that affect real life. So "planning" should not be confined to land use alone.

* Speak in a language people understand. Planning jargon can make it impossible for folks to grasp the meaning or the significance of discussions that affect their lives and families. Before translating presentations and documents into Spanish and other languages, they need to be written in plain English.

* Keep people coming back. The typical government meeting is held in a junior high cafetorium with uncomfortable chairs and bad acoustics. The in-crowd stands around swapping City Hall gossip, with no attempt to make newcomers feel welcome. Ordinary citizens huddle in the back rows, intimidated about participating. Contrast this with the fervor of the welcome at places where they want you to feel at home--an evangelical church, for example. It's time to put our faith into democracy.

* "Stakeholders" are not the people. "Citizen advisory" groups are often appointed to represent the citizens but are usually stacked with representatives of organized interest groups. True citizenship is achieved by working toward the common good, which is often different from the infighting among advocates for particular interests. The only people who truly represent the people are the people themselves.

There is no formula for what will work best in Ventura. But there are two essential ingredients: leadership and citizenship.

Surmounting the apathy, cynicism and hostility of ordinary citizens to "government planning" requires enlightened and tenacious leadership. And overcoming the inherent insulation of government planning requires active and positive citizenship. Neither is easy to find. But Ventura's future rests with galvanizing both in the months ahead.

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