Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"What's next for Damascus" (as published on OregonLive.com 5/18/11

Interesting perspective and we would like your thoughts.

The citizens of Damascus voted Tuesday night, and the results make clear that the great majority is not happy with the Comprehensive Plan developed to guide the future growth of our city. Whether the voters are displeased with the actual plan, the process by which it was arrived at, the direction it drives our city, or the council and staff who put the plan together, it is now painfully clear that our community does not support the current Comprehensive Plan.

Given that simple truth, it seems unavoidable that some changes are going to be needed to gain the trust, and approval of the people of Damascus. Ultimately, it may be that changes to the plan itself will not be sufficient. At a minimum, this council is going to have to do a far better job of communicating with the citizens than they have to date. The council and staff have spent much time and effort declaring that efforts to involve the citizens were top notch. They regularly wave around the Citizen Involvement Plan, and declare that it was accepted by the state, and has won awards. Missing from that narrative is the simple fact that no plan ever guarantees actual good performance, and this plan is a perfect example of that.

State planning Goal One, requires citizen involvement in all phases of planning for a city. But unlike every other state goal, Goal One is not judged by the results at the end of the process, it is judged by the plan at the beginning. This illustrates very plainly that only lip service is required to meet Goal One, and the Damascus history clearly shows the downside of the current focus on a plan, and no concern about the actual implementation of that plan.

The City Council has been asked time and again to spend more time just having conversations and discussions with the people of Damascus. Until recently, when the Committee for Citizen Involvement basically forced their hand by scheduling a Town Hall without waiting for council to agree, the current and former councils have been extremely reluctant to engage in open, unscripted dialogue with the people. This lack of communication has led our city to where we are now, and either the council will change how they and staff have handled communication, or the current division will worsen, with some very serious consequences for our city. It is time to spend as much effort actually talking to citizens, as the effort that has been put into claiming that they have.

Another critical area of evaluation that is required is whether the city has the right people in place to develop a plan that has the support and approval of the citizens of Damascus. Damascus is the first city in the State of Oregon to develop a plan for a new city. That alone should be enough to indicate that the people working on the plan should be experienced, knowledgeable, and well versed in the communication skills needed to discover the community’s desires and mold those into an acceptable plan. Oregon’s land use process was designed to be applied to the cities that were already in existence when the land use laws were adopted. By definition, the process in Damascus was going to be far different from that, and would by extension, require an even better strategy and plan to guide the work of both the staff and council.

That in-depth, well thought out strategic master plan to guide the process and work of so many people was never done. After a council retreat this year, the new city manager has been forcing the planning department to develop just such a strategic schedule, but the fact that massive amounts of time and money have been expended in a disorganized process should, and must, have consequences.

The lack of such a vital tool clearly shows that the management of the planning department either did not understand the necessity of such plan, or they did not value the resources they were trusted with enough to initiate such a basic concept to avoid wasting both time and treasure.

At a very minimum, the two things discussed here should be evaluated for ways to change the paradigm Damascus is in. The council must initiate and commit to better communication and informational dialogue with the citizens. If people do not feel they have been kept informed and involved, they will react badly. They showed that last night.

Second, and likely more important, changes to the staff are going to be necessary to regain the confidence and trust of the people in the process. Having watched the Ship of Damascus Planning be crashed into the rocks over and over for the last few years, it is time to put someone else behind the wheel. The citizens of Damascus responsibly pay their taxes every year. They should be able to feel confident that those in charge of expending those resources are behaving as responsibly.

Chris Hawes

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to offer a slightly different perspective on why such a large percentage of eligible voters in Damascus voted down the plan. I may be wrong, but I imagine that there is not one simple reason, nor any lack of guesses as to what the reasons were.

    Let me try to cast this in a different light:

    Let’s say you work a 50 hour job, and commute 10 to 15 hours a week on top of that. You have the kid’s games on the weekends, practice at least one afternoon a week (probably more). You try to work out 3 times a week at the gym. On Sunday you may be at church -- or the golf course. Somewhere in between you try to make Kiwanis, keep the yard in shape, check in on the folks, and spend good doses of quality time with your wife and kids.

    Then one day you get a note that mentions a link on the web to a plan detailing a procedure (the files is 40 pages or so, written in highly technical language). Yeah, you could have made time to research the thing he mentioned last year. Yep, you could have attended some of those support group meetings. Sure, you could have popped in the DVD he lent you. But you were busy.

    Now your doctor needs you to decide if you want the procedure or not - by 8:00! “Just call and leave a voicemail of yes or no”. It will be after hours so it may be tough to ask catch anybody who can explain it. Oh, and he’s not sure how much the procedure will cost nor how much your insurance will cover, it’s kind of new and nobody’s done it before but he’s sure you are a great candidate for it and you need to have something done, and done soon.. or else.

    There are things that seem to confuse even the experts. Imagine a majority of those who simply live their busy lives who haven’t found time to get involved or even very informed. Then to have an election that asks “Is this what you want for your city?” It’s easy to think “They’ve had plenty of time to get informed”, but reality suggests at least quite a few haven’t.

    Many of my friends in Damascus weren’t at all sure what was in the plan. They were unsure that they wanted to spend an undetermined amount of money (at best, or huge sums at worst if what they’ve heard rumors of were true - - and I’m not saying they are true). Especially so on a plan that they weren’t sure they could later change very much. (Though some say they can, nobody has clearly and authoritatively declared for sure what they can and cannot later modify, we just know that government wheels don’t move quickly.) And when folks don’t know much about a new plan, they mostly know they don’t want to vote for it.

    For all I know, it may be a terrific plan. Goodness knows enough time was spent putting it together, but it’s a new and tricky thing to do. While some good citizens have felt disenfranchised along with way, and some of them certainly have felt that, it seems to me that City Hall has really tried to get input from folks. Coffee klatches and meeting after meeting which were publicized in the paper and in the City News, plastered all over the front windows of City Hall, emailed out, and on the city website ad-infinitum. But it’s big and hairy and folks are busy. Somehow City Hall needs to develop a new record of civility and an openness to listen to voices of opposing views in a way that makes people feel valued, not simply endured. I think there are people there who can do that, and pray they do so soon.

    Still, had it only been defeated by a small majority of citizens we could spin conspiracy theories. I think the election of a mayor who for a long time has stood opposed to council, coupled with a ringing rejection of the proposal, cannot be ignored nor merely chalked up to political spin. If the plan is good, it must be shown clearly for what it is, with plenty of opportunity such as the Town Hall Forum created.

    Kudos to the Committee for Citizen Involvement for making that happen, and thanks to the Mayor, Council, and city staff for being great hosts while sitting in the hot seats.