Chapel Hill: Opinion

Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco: Better community engagement in Chapel Hill would empower missing voices

By Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco

If there’s one thing our local elected officials must do in 2016, it’s doing a better job soliciting and incorporating community input into their decisions. Our current talking-at-elected-officials-at-podiums-at-7-p.m. model isn’t working for the great majority of residents in our community. This method excludes too many people, and it privileges those who can spend many hours participating in lengthy meetings.

Planning projects in Chapel Hill are not for the fainthearted. Town Council meetings often last past midnight. Few people have the time to wait for hours just for their chance at a three-minute public comment. Other projects have included the formation of committees like the Central West Steering Committee or Obey Creek Compass Committee that end up holding lengthy meetings regularly for several months to a year. The people who can attend these meetings typically aren’t the working couple with three school-age kids, the young adult with a day job who waits tables at night to earn some extra money, or our lower-income neighbors who work two and three jobs to afford to live in our community.

The nature of our current planning and public participation processes can give elected officials a skewed sense of public opinion on a matter. A few people who perceive a negative impact to them personally can have an outsized effect by showing up repeatedly at the same meetings, while the silent majority that supports a particular action is not heard. Which is more reflective of “public opinion” – the people who talk loudest, or the people who are silent but supportive?

This is not to criticize staff who work hard to engage the community. We recognize that staff are working within the confines of the law and what time they can commit to public participation efforts – and, to their credit, we have seen some innovative engagement in our community. A stellar example is the recent bike plan in Chapel Hill, which used a variety of in-person and online methods to gather input from a wide range of community members. The tavern talks, part of Chapel Hill 2020, are another good example. The true problem with public participation is a systemic one in local government processes as they currently exist.

It is true that public hearings are mandated by law, and they’re not going away without state action to change processes. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come up with creative solutions that support broad participation, particularly from those most affected by an issue. Those most affected are often lower-income residents who are also often left out of the conversation. Students in our schools routinely Skype with elementary school classes in faraway places. Surely we’re smart enough to find innovative ways to connect more segments of our community with elected officials.

For example, there are smartphone apps that facilitate community engagement activities. These apps would allow elected bodies to obtain feedback on key issues without the requirement of residents showing up for a public hearing and having to wait their turn to be heard. We should also be encouraging our elected officials to take the public hearing to the community instead of expecting them to come to Town Hall. Set these listening sessions at times that community members can attend, perhaps scheduling them to coincide with set community events. We have a vibrant bar scene in Chapel Hill where many of our town’s younger residents spend their time. Why not engage these residents where they’re already spending time and feel comfortable?

Our community is more than just the handful of individuals who attend local government meetings. It’s time that we truly recognize this by prioritizing creative community engagement that doesn’t require being at a specific location at a specific time for hours on end. Our community – and the outcomes of our planning processes – will be better for it.

Molly De Marco and Travis Crayton are editors of the blog and live in Chapel Hill.