• 401 Frederica Street, B-203
  • Owensboro, Kentucky 42301
  • (270) 685-2652 | FAX (270) 685-6074

Major initiatives warrant a public process

Public officials, members of governing boards, committees, and task forces: Opportunities are at hand – opportunities to make wise decisions, build good will, and enrich our sense of community.

In coming months:

  • City and County officials will select priorities from an ambitious list of proposed capital construction projects.
  • The Owensboro Board of Education will spend and borrow many millions of dollars, primarily to expand athletic facilities.
  • The Daviess County Public Library will make decisions about relocating or expanding facilities.
  • A citizen task force will examine and make recommendations regarding City-County government unification.

These are highly charged, volatile matters that could polarize our community. How leaders go about making these decisions, and the degree to which they welcome and value public participation, will determine whether these proceedings will be civil or rancorous.

In recent years, our foundation organized or was asked to have a leadership role in numerous community forums on health care access, education, community appearance and the riverfront, world affairs, race-ethnic relations, youth services, and more. In such capacities, we observed and learned much about what it takes to engage citizens in respectful, productive dialogue.

As work proceeds on these important community initiatives, we respectfully offer local leaders what we’ve learned:

Involve the public early.

If you wait until decisions are essentially made and hold the mandatory, perfunctory public hearings, the public sees right through it and resents it.


If you are concerned that the public is ill-advised, the remedy is not to dismiss their views and role, but to inform them – repetitively and effectively.

Don’t make it difficult.

Facts, trends, the nature of problems, options, costs, points pro and con should be presented in a way that is clear, concise, and understood by all.

Take it to the people.

Public buildings can be intimidating. Driving downtown at night is inconvenient. Present information at schools, community centers, churches, fire stations. Work with co-sponsoring groups. Use the neighborhood alliances. Send a signal that you welcome and value the voice of all.

Set ground rules.

Hotheads and passionate proponents/opponents can disrupt meaningful dialogue. Set parameters that apply to all to ensure civility and equal participation.

Be balanced.

You should not try to sell your program. Your responsibility is to make decisions that are in the public’s best interest. Strong leaders acknowledge legitimate points from other perspectives and trust in the collective wisdom of the people.

Promote dialogue and deliberation.

Don’t stage debates. Progress and consensus seldom come from arguing. Give citizens a chance to wrestle with options, advantages and disadvantages, tradeoffs, and complexities of issues and choices.

Encourage and respect all points of view.

Foster mutual respect by giving citizens the opportunity to understand other points of view. Many people have never felt that their views matter. They deserve to be heard. Listen. Really listen.

Postpone judgment until all this takes place.

Resist the urge to come to judgment prematurely. Carefully weigh all the facts and perspectives before making your decision.

Be open.

Even if you are not obligated to do so: meet in public; deliberate in public; share the rationale of your decisions openly. Demonstrate that you have nothing to hide.

Such a process may be impractical when there is a short deadline or if the public investment is not substantial enough to warrant public scrutiny. But for the major initiatives under consideration currently, every effort should be made to systematically inform and engage the public. It will inevitably lead to better decisions, good will, increased confidence and trust in local leaders and institutions.

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