This town is currently a guinea pig for graduate students in the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, who are probing the lack of public involvement in local government affairs.
The study is the final leg of a two-part elective course on behavioral economics at Duke. Its purpose is to determine what causes poor public attendance at Zebulon’s town meetings and identify possible remedies.
“This is an opportunity that we have to be able to test some things that we believe make a difference, and conduct an analysis of what we did,” said Patrick Nevins, one of the four graduate students on the Zebulon project team. “The goal is to be able to show (the town), based on our research, this is the key to success for what we want to achieve – to provide factual data for the basis for our recommendation.”
The study came about when Zebulon Town Manager Joe Moore and Mayor Bob Matheny attended a two-day seminar at Duke, where they and other town leaders had the chance to submit applications naming topics they would like studied in their towns.
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Citizen engagement, or the lack of it, was chosen out of a handful of applications they submitted for Zebulon.
Zebulon not alone
It’s been common in recent years to see only department heads and staff in attendance at Zebulon board meetings.
The town has also struggled to keep appointed boards filled, and a proposed citizens academy – a free crash course for residents on how their local government works – fell through early last year after just one person signed up.
“Its frustrating, it really is,” Matheny said when the citizens academy flopped. “It’s a real outreach here and just disappointing people are that ambivalent.”
Nevins says Zebulon is not alone in its struggles to fill the seats in its council chambers.
“There’s numerous academic papers written on civic engagement,” Nevins said. “I don’t think it’s anything new or groundbreaking. It’s things municipalities and governments as a whole have been dealing with the whole time.
“It ranges from people not having time, people not knowing about the meetings, not feeling their presence would make a difference, all these things. It’s very similar to voting.”
Members of the project team have attended board meetings and met with town staff and focus groups composed of Zebulon residents in recent months.
Nevins on Wednesday said his group was finalizing a plan to test its hypotheses. The team is expected to report back on the findings of those tests to the town at some point in the spring.
Those involved in the study hesitated to reveal too many more details, concerned that doing so publicly may compromise test results.
Moore hopes the study will lead to visible results, but says the head count at meetings isn’t everything early on.
“I don’t know that we should be chasing after a number metric, that that’s necessarily going to give us a lot of value,” he said. “We should be looking for people who are at the very least knowledgeable and that people who do participate are giving well-founded thoughts and comments. I think it’s going to be more of a qualitative measure at first.”
Moore said town meeting attendance was similar in Brevard when he began his previous job as city manager in 2009, but that meetings were well attended by the time he left last March.
He was not aware of Zebulon’s citizen participation levels when he was hired in July, but said it is not unusual for towns to struggle with community engagement.
“It’s something I would have wanted to (work on), regardless,” Moore said. “For some of the things we need to talk about as a town – downtown, greenways, street maintenance – we’ve got to have people engaged. They have to be cognizant of the situation, but also knowledgeable to participate and give well-founded input.”