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Managing Public Expectations…And Shoe Throwers

Managing Public Expectations…And Shoe Throwers

Shoes took on a special significance in public life when an Iraqi journalist hurled his at then-President George W. Bush, expressing his disdain for the President’s war policy.  While the incident made international news and the shoe-throwing journalist became a hero in the eyes of many, the impact that the incident had on the course of the U.S. military engagement or U.S.-Iraqi relations may not have been very significant.

This incident came to mind when reading about developments in Lindsey, California, a town of about 12,000 between Fresno and Bakersfield.  According to this newspaper account, a man removed his shoe and threatened to throw it after the city council announced it would move forward on an item that some felt needed more review from the public.  The threat of arrest and a permanent ban from future city council meetings evidently convinced the potentially shoeless man from removing his shoe.

While it’s not clear that someone could be permanently banned from City Council meetings, elected officials certainly have a responsibility to keep their meetings safe for all participants (including themselves).  They are not neutral facilitators of their meetings because they themselves are often under attack.  But they nevertheless have the difficult responsibility of balancing a person’s free speech rights under the Constitution with the need for an environment where all feel welcome.

Beyond these issues, however, lies a set of critical issues related to public participation.  While we can’t know exactly why the man removed his shoe, the article makes it seems as if he was frustrated (along with others) about not having another opportunity to offer input on the proposal to extend a road through a park.  One speaker even asked the city council not to make a decision and then continue to meet with residents after the decision had been made.  At least one council member suggested that the decision did not require urgent action and the council could provide the public with more time to give input.

We know from the article that two meetings (in some form) took place prior to the vote, so the city of Lindsay appears to have recognized the value of public participation. But the fact that anger grew so significantly suggests that the council and the most vocal stakeholders did not agree on what meaningful, thorough participation might look like.

One of IAP2’s Core Values states that “public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.”  We don’t know whether the Lindsay, California city council took that step with stakeholders or what would have happened if they did—shoes may still have come off.  But if the convening agency or city can come to agreement with leading stakeholders or stakeholder groups on the nature of the problem they are trying the address and the process for addressing it, perhaps they could avoid these kinds of conflicts.

Categories: News
  1. Jason Schwartz
    February 29, 2012 at 9:51 am

    I think this article makes a great point that we need to “manage community expectations.” This is essential when doing almost anything involving or impacting the public. I work in airport noise management and when community expectations are not met, we face complaints, opposition, and in the worst cases, litigation.

    Regarding asking participants for input on how they will participate, I’m confused about what that would/could look like? In the case of potential changes – say a city council is asking for input about a tax increase or locating a recycling facility or jail (something likely to result in opposition and emotion), how do you ask for input on how participants will actually participate? At a city council meeting is that simply posing the question before asking for input? It seems a challenge is understanding that there are benefits and disbenefits to most decisions and there will be those whom are happy with the decision and those who won’t be.

    In the case of a recycling facility, clearly, especially here in the northwest, this would be supported by most people if it would increase the opportunity to recycle. However, it is probably just as likely that those living near the proposed location – whereever that might be – would be opposed to such a facility (NIMBY principle). While I understand the argument from both sides, I am not sure how you can effectively engage those who you know will likely oppose the decision and similarly, how you can effectively ask them for how they would like to participate in the decision-making (e.g. perhaps location is negotiable..).

    I am new to IAP2 so please forgive my ignorance here.

    Jason Schwartz

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