Town Meeting underscores need for meaningful public participation in major community decisions
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Nov. 10th was a remarkable day in Owensboro. That Saturday, 650 citizens gathered around 67 tables to discuss the issues facing the community. It was an unprecedented expression of citizenship and love of community.
Participants crafted a vision for a 21st century community within the framework of five discussion topics. They listened to people from all walks of life, shared opinions, and discussed options in a spirit of civility.
More than 60 volunteers planned the event over a six-month period, and more than 140 volunteers assisted on the day of the event. To help those who faced obstacles to participation, event organizers provided transportation, child care, translation, signing for the deaf and large print versions of the discussion guide.
Trained facilitators captured comments on laptop computers so the “Theme Team” could analyze and present information on large screens to facilitate voting throughout the day. The voting was tabulated instantly using individual keypads.
Committee members worked extra hard to attract participants that reflected the demographic profile of the community. And we came very close – in age, race, income, employment, and place of residence.
For example: 62 percent of the town meeting participants lived in the city, and 34 percent lived in the county – just a few percentage points off the actual census breakdown.
It was a special day, a day that folks are still talking about. In fact, some people have told us it was like a spiritual experience, a rebirth of their belief in the democratic process, a new model for engaging the public in important decisions and directions.
So what were the outcomes from the town meeting? Here are the most frequent recommendations:
Based on further analysis of the results, several striking recommendations emerged.
We learned that people do indeed care about their community and are more knowledgeable about pressing issues than we thought.
We learned that people want great things for this community. They want it to be a vibrant, attractive community rich in amenities and economic opportunities.
We learned that people have a strong sense of ownership in their governments, public agencies, and community institutions such as our schools, our hospital and our library.
We learned that people understand that our democracy belongs to us all – even those who are not well-educated or who have a disability or struggle in poverty; they should all have a place at the table.
We learned that when dialogue is carefully structured and ground rules established, we can disagree without being disagreeable.
We learned that people believe that our democracy should be a participatory democracy.
We are still analyzing the 200-plus pages of raw notes and the 800-plus pages of demographic comparisons. These will be summarized in our final report that will be released soon and will be available on our website (www.wethepeopletownmeeting.org) or the Public Life Foundation website (www.plfo.org).
The town meeting has many positive applications. It has already proved to be a tool to
More than 300 participants indicated an interest in staying involved, and more than half of those have already attended meetings. Five work groups have been established to focus on the five discussion topics, goals and priorities that emerged from the town meeting:
More people are involved. Great ideas are coming forth. And good things are already happening!
To get involved or for a schedule of meetings, contact the Public Life Foundation: 685-2652.
Another “We the People” full group meeting is scheduled for March 4 – the 90-day mark following the kick-off meeting. Make a note of it! More details later! All are invited!
While it is not practical to organize a town meeting of this magnitude on a frequent basis or in conjunction with routine decisions, a variation of the AmericaSpeaks methodology could be used by local governments, public commissions, tax districts, and major community nonprofit institutions as they consider options on major expenditures, capital projects, site selection, major policy or program initiatives.
Issues can be framed objectively, setting forth the pros and cons for each option. Discussions can be facilitated and ground rules established to maintain civility. And the keypad technology used during the town meeting could be used for voting to obtain instant results.
Officials and policymakers should welcome the opportunity to better understand the views of a broad, informed constituency. The town meeting has demonstrated that our community can set a higher standard and openly engage our community in dialogue on major issues and community decisions.
The condition of the national economy drives state government revenues. In sluggish times such as these, state revenue shortfalls can be huge. Budget shortfalls and cost overruns for this fiscal year will total $434 million - about five percent of the state’s General Fund, according to the Consensus Forecasting Group, independent state economic advisors. That’s close to $900 million over the biennium.
These revenue shortfalls can be devastating to local institutions, including:
The Fox Report, commissioned in 2001 by the state legislature, projected that state government would have to raise $2.3 billion by 2010 to maintain existing services. This was attributed to an outdated tax system.
Since then, the Fletcher administration stood by its tax modernization “revenue neutral” plan and was able to point to numerous administrative efficiencies and a large surplus. However, many analysts noted that a “structural deficit” remained, that the surplus was only possible because funds were borrowed from sources designated for other purposes.
Beyond the impact of the national economy, why is state government under such financial pressure?
What are our options for dealing with this circumstance?
Need for public dialogue
Which option, or which group of options, does the public favor?
Is the public well-informed on this issue?
Do we have a spending problem or a revenue problem?
Do citizens understand the options?
Should there be a public airing of the tradeoffs, costs, consequences and points pro and con connected with each option?
Have citizens had an opportunity to listen, learn, deliberate and share their views with decision makers?
Our Commonwealth, our elected leaders, would be well-served to make a place for meaningful public participation on this pivotal issue and to integrate into their deliberations the collective wisdom of an informed citizenry.
Kentucky Economic Justice Alliance (www.keja.org)
Loftus, Tom “Austere budget spreads pain throughout the state, Courier-Journal, Jan. 30, 2008
Loftus, Tom “Increase in cigarette tax gaining support in House, Courier-Journal, Jan. 18, 2008
Sixteen years ago this fall, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer published a series of articles by columnist Neal Peirce. The series was based on a comprehensive strategic assessment of Owensboro-Daviess County completed by Peirce and his associates.
Peirce specializes in examining the best and worst of what’s happening in states and communities across America. Author of 12 books, including Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World, his weekly column has been syndicated through the Washington Post Writer’s Group since 1978.
The series, “Owensboro, Kentucky: Reforging Community,” analyzed more than a dozen issues, including economic growth and agriculture, education, downtown and the riverfront potential, environmental concerns, governmental services and more.
Since Peirce published his assessment, much has happened in our community. And much has stayed the same. We offer an update on some of the more compelling observations and recommendations included in the Peirce report: in this issue, the challenges facing downtown Owensboro.
Peirce devoted considerable print to downtown and the riverfront:
“Owensboro must pledge itself to an intensive campaign to recreate a downtown with character and attractiveness, a true meeting place for the region’s people and visitors from afar. Developing a fully accessible, lively waterfront must be a top priority.”
Peirce encouraged the development of riverfront open-air restaurants and the completion of a walkway from Smother’s Park to English Park. He endorsed an extensive riverfront cleanup, a major downtown corporate office, downtown parking facility, expanded recreational boating, mixed income downtown housing and specialty retail. He was struck by the unique compactness of downtown that lends itself to walking.
“Only in downtown do you have a chance to get where you want to go on foot, to shake dependence on the automobile for every move. Downtowns offer…history, color, variety – rare commodities in the world of homogenous subdivisions and shopping malls.”
“Fighting for good aesthetics isn’t an interest in botany. It’s a competitive thing. And nowhere is the competitive challenge greater than downtown.”
“Downtown’s future is everyone’s interest.”
He also stressed the importance of Downtown Owensboro, Inc. and the need for centralized downtown management. Peirce found it refreshing that a majority of Owensboro leaders believed in downtown, but he warned that downtown goals will only be achieved through “serious staff time and long-term commitment” …“Owensboro could do it if it cared.”
RiverPark Center was under construction while Peirce conducted his research. He called the riverfront site ingenious and the private fundraising extraordinary for a city our size.
He concluded that RiverPark Center could be a white elephant or a cultural mecca, a center of community pride and accomplishment, a “crown jewel of downtown redevelopment.” He cited several key challenges: RiverPark must be managed as well as it was conceived; Bluegrass Music must be promoted “with verve and imagination;” and the residential area surrounding downtown must be an inviting place.
“Yet, however impressive the downtown and waterfront revival has been, it’s too soon to celebrate, to rest on one’s oars.”
Peirce praised the leadership of Terry Woodward in creating an international hub for bluegrass music in Owensboro: the establishment of a trade association, the proposal for an annual bluegrass festival on the riverfront, and the location of a Bluegrass Museum and Hall of Fame right next to the new RiverPark Center:
“So far the Woodward timetable is working almost perfectly …would be tough to think of a better business move: 40 million Americans listen to bluegrass. Bluegrass and barbecue, twin legends, demonstrate Owensboro’s skill at capitalizing on a longstanding local tradition.”
Since the Peirce report was published, downtown Owensboro has seen many improvements. But the district faces challenges and has also fallen short of its potential.
RiverPark Center has indeed become the cultural center and community gathering spot envisioned by Peirce. Home of the Owensboro Symphony, Broadway productions, children’s programming and more, RiverPark is a prominent community landmark, source of pride and economic development sales tool.
President/CEO Zev Buffman has expanded Broadway show construction and launched several national-international tours. He also founded the Young Adult Theater Academy and the International Mystery Writer’s Festival. RiverPark features a premiere arts education program that exposes youth to performances, involves youth in productions, and integrates the arts into the teaching of other subject areas.
RiverPark’s endowment fund is insufficient to meet the long-term building maintenance and operational needs of the center. Capital construction has been financed through lease payments to the City of Owensboro that are equivalent to the debt service. RiverPark earns more income and attracts more private support than most performing arts centers, but considerable fundraising challenges remain.
Peirce praised the five-point plan to establish a bluegrass music hub in Owensboro. Unfortunately, due to the condition and limitation of Owensboro’s hotel-convention facilities in the mid-1990s, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) moved its annual World of Bluegrass extravaganza to Nashville. A huge blow to the bluegrass vision; a move still resented by a community that birthed the association and supported it through its fragile early years.
Despite the IBMA move, the International Bluegrass Music Museum (IBMM) remains in Owensboro and continues to expand its reach and promise through initiative, innovation and technology. A Video Oral History Project, Bluegrass Radio International Internet program, workshops, lessons and jam sessions, and a Bluegrass in the Schools program are among the notable achievements. A few years ago, the museum’s River of Music Party (ROMP) moved from English Park to Yellow Creek Park in east Daviess County. It would be in downtown’s best interest to lure ROMP back to the riverfront when the master plan is completed.
IBMA aggressively solicits support from foundations, individuals, corporate sponsors and governmental bodies. Securing sustainable operational funds and building an endowment are principal museum priorities.
Three phases of the Riverfront Master Plan are complete: the RiverPark Center BB&T Patio expansion; McConnell Plaza; and new English Park boating facility. In spring 2008, construction will commence on a retaining wall to stabilize the riverbank and allow for a dramatic expansion of Smothers Park and public space. This will include open space, playgrounds, fountains, access to the water and other features.
A state-financed downtown parking garage serves RiverPark Center and the bluegrass museum conveniently. Because the structure was tucked between buildings on Second Street and First Street (now Veteran’s Boulevard), it has stimulated several major building (former McAtee, Salm, Newberry) renovations on Second Street. Surprisingly and disappointingly, development has not occurred along the riverfront side of the garage.
Since the Peirce report was released, the RiverPark Center Main Street buildings have been converted to a home for the Owensboro Symphony and Tourist Information Center. Downtown landed the Old National Bank project and property is targeted for another bank. Several tasteful restorations have been completed by MediaWorks, First Security Bank, Terry Woodward and others.
The future of the Executive Inn is a critical variable for the future of downtown Owensboro, setting the tone for a new events-convention center, additional hotels and other development potential in the downtown and along the riverfront.
There may be special opportunities for substantial developments if large tracts can be assembled in the Executive Inn area, along the riverfront and the vacant land east of downtown hit hard by a recent tornado. High-density housing, specialty retail, major hotel and office facilities, restaurants and entertainment investments are being explored. Advocates, planners and some developers appear intrigued with the appeal of a downtown characterized by “new urbanism.”
A local developer has assembled several key tracts along the riverfront and is proposing a major condominium project opposite Smothers Park. The plan apparently hinges on the developer’s ability to pre-sell condos to owners and investors.
If the 2008 state legislature and local voters authorize expanded gaming in November, there could be interest in a downtown casino.
Some businesses appear to be content with downtown locations. Downtown stores include a pharmacy, several antique shops, jewelry store, restaurants, and others. However, these businesses do not always occupy appealing space and they are not clustered in a way to enhance appeal or convenience.
Several public or quasi-public anchors may be in downtown’s future: a multi-purpose events center (arena-convention) center and minor league baseball-concert stadium. There has been some reconsideration of a downtown ice arena, tennis complex or water park. Audubon Area Community Services plans a downtown parking garage for its regional transportation system.
Downtown is still the location of choice for government offices, financial institutions and professional firms. County government expanded the Holbrook Judicial Center and is restoring the Smith-Werner building. City government gave a fresh new look to the entrance off the Glover Cary Bridge and has assumed a leadership role in the implementation of the riverfront plan. Several churches own significant property downtown. Unfortunately, these governmental and nonprofit expenditures do not enhance the downtown tax base.
Downtown advocates have not been effective in retaining important downtown anchors. Missed corporate opportunities include: Atmos Energy, Southern Star Central Gas Pipeline, US Bank Home Mortgage, South Central Bank and Independence Bank. Proponents for downtown question why several new public facilities were not built downtown: Owensboro Municipal Utilities, Daviess County Public Library, U.S. Post Office, and Social Security offices.
Meanwhile, downtown continues to lose street life and vitality as surface parking lots, vacant or underused buildings and professional offices occupy street frontage. This warrants an infill development strategy and tenant mix plan.
Peirce would surely be disappointed to learn of the dissolution of Downtown Owensboro, Inc., weakened by a declining downtown business membership base. However, he would likely be encouraged by the restructuring of economic development efforts within the framework of a new Commerce Center that now houses the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation, Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, Owensboro Metropolitan Planning Commission and other agencies.
A new downtown executive position has been created and will be supported through an agreement between city and county governments. Local governments appear to be prepared for a more proactive role in assembling development sites, downtown planning and developer solicitation. Officials plan to establish a downtown (“blighted area”) tax increment financing district. And there is increasing interest in various public improvements – for example, the “calming” of Second Street by rerouting truck traffic or converting it to two-way traffic with stop signs at intersections.
Peirce would have been pleased – and impressed – that 650 citizens participated in the Nov. 10, 2007 “We the People” 21st Century Town Meeting, and that one of their top priorities was the “transformation” of downtown Owensboro.
Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best antiseptic.”
Government officials cannot keep ignoring the festering sores of independent “527” campaign organizations. It is time they are treated with the soothing rays of openness and transparency. The recent revelation that more than two-thirds of the $3 million Bluegrass Freedom Fund – that ironically promoted higher ethical standards in Frankfort – was financed by gambling and racing interests reinforces the need to reveal the donors. These 527-funded advertisements technically do not support or oppose candidates. Nonetheless, donors to the pro-Beshear Bluegrass Fund and the Fletcher Defense Fund and other funds like them should have been revealed – immediately after the donation was made.
The public would also be well-served if state legislators would designate joint House-Senate Conference Committee meetings as open meetings. Major decisions, compromises and mutually-beneficial deals among legislators are all made in Conference Committee. Let the sunshine in.
And another practical, achievable step that would significantly enhance openness and transparency in state government: In his Nov. 27, 2007 column, Courier-Journal columnist David Dyche suggested that the General Assembly post each and every expenditure from the state Treasury on a web site for public inspection. Apparently this is already being done in other states. Why not in Kentucky? Why not in Owensboro-Daviess County? A timely and appropriate action considering the top recommendation to come forth from the government discussion period during the “We the People” Town Meeting: “Establish policies that ensure openness and transparency.”
Congratulations to Owensboro High School (OHS) for being recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one our nation’s most outstanding high schools. OHS received the “bronze” designation, and was one of only 23 Kentucky high schools on the list.
Owensboro Public Schools (OPS) Superintendent Dr. Larry Vick was named 2008 Superintendent of the Year during the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents winter meeting in Louisville. The award included a $2,000 scholarship for an Owensboro student in Vick’s honor. The association acknowledged Vick’s “…reputation as a quiet, effective leader among his colleagues” and acknowledged the following accomplishments: an increase in test scores; initiatives to engage students in extra curricular activities; an elementary intramural program; piano keyboard and Spanish instruction; fine arts fair; and athletic and fine arts facility expansion.
Laudable initiatives indeed, and the kinds of initiatives Owensboro High will need to offer and promote in order to retain its competitive appeal, as nearly all of the affluent residential developments continue to be built outside the city school district boundary, leaving a higher concentration of students from low-income families in the city schools.
A Citizens Committee on Education study released in February 2003 concluded that the OPS faced a difficult financial future.
The research, conducted by Mark A. Dartt, Ed.S., Director of Institutional Research at Kentucky Wesleyan College (whose 32-year career included experience as a classroom teacher, principal and district superintendent), concluded that “OPS faces a challenge to survive long-term as an independent entity. Financial strength, student out-transfers, and limited tax base challenge OPS to attend to strategic planning and greater collaboration with DCPS.”
Dartt added, “OPS faces increasing fiscal challenges to its viability: student loss and emigration; more limited, landlocked tax base; general fiscal security; sustaining competitive teacher compensation; teacher-student ratios; and larger burden of special needs students.”
Since the Dartt study, OPS moved forward with an ambitious $20 million athletic and fine arts expansion, athletic improvements at Shifley Park under a lease from the City of Owensboro, while retaining a healthy reserve fund. For that, the OPS board and staff deserve accolades.
Does that mean that Dartt’s projections were incorrect? Perhaps it could mean that:
Whatever the cause or strategy used, a crisis does not appear to be pending.
That does not minimize the need to keep strategic planning as a priority so that the OPS board is not forced to respond to a crisis in the future. And the board should not be cavalier about the disparity in property taxes between city and county school district residents.
And as for the $20 million bond issue:
More extensive citizen dialogue and participation would have been invigorating. The public missed out on an opportunity to dream. Citizens from all walks of life – not just parents and teachers – had much to contribute to the process. And all city school district taxpayers had every right to have a voice.
It would have been interesting to sketch out all the options for use of OPS’s bonding capacity, and to deliberate over the pros and cons of those options.
It would have been interesting to imagine what facilities will characterize the top schools of the 21st century. What models from other cities, states, or other countries, could we learn from? What would leading education futurists suggest?
Extra curricular activities – such as sports and the fine arts – are important and valuable. But what other priorities might have emerged if citizens had been allowed to engage more fully in the process?
A hearty salute to the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce for its Chamber Leadership Initiatives for Northwest Kentucky (C-LINK). For many years, communication and coalescing has been a missing element of community and regional lobbying efforts. Owensboro-Daviess County is not large enough, and does not have the legislative voting clout, to exercise effective leverage with other lawmakers in Frankfort to push forward our agenda. By pooling strength and numbers from the 12 chambers of commerce and 10 counties, that can change.
The 12 chambers represent 3,000 businesses and the 10 counties have a population of more than 300,000. Daviess, Henderson, Hopkins, Union, Webster, Muhlenberg, McLean, Ohio, Hancock and Breckinridge counties are participating.
This is a valuable initiative. We hope chamber leaders will welcome the participation of all interested citizens in that new organization to help shape regional priorities.
The Cash Creek coal-fired power plant cleared another hurdle on January 14 when owners received the final air quality permit. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued no comments or objections. Citizens have until March 14 to petition the EPA.
Evansville-based Valley Watch has criticized officials for not considering the impact of the plant on tri-state ozone levels. According to the owner, the Erora Group, the plant will use an integrated gasification process that will release considerably less sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides than older coal plants.
Proposed for a Green River site opposite Curdsville on the Henderson-Daviess County line, the plant appears to have strong support and momentum from elected officials, economic development groups and organized labor. Environmental groups have voiced concerns about the concentration of coal-fired power plants in our state and region. There are 17 coal-fired power plants in western Kentucky and southern Indiana.
Environmentalists stress that as new plants are built, older polluting plants are not phased out, resulting in net increases in air and water pollution.
Columnist Neil Peirce’s 1991 comprehensive assessment of Owensboro-Daviess County included a recommendation for a well-informed, balanced, citizen-based Safe Growth Committee to assess proposals such as the Cash Creek plant. The Environmental Impact Council, one of the citizen groups that was established following the “We the People” Town Meeting, hopes to serve in such a capacity.
The expanded use of coal promises jobs that pay well, and many people think we should maximize this natural resource to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yet concerns over climate change, toxic emissions, mercury contamination and fish advisories in streams, dramatic increases in autism and concerns over mountaintop removal mining in eastern Kentucky are leading more citizens to question our direction in coal production.
Should we ever draw the line on coal-fired power plants in this region? Do we lure more plants with taxpayer incentives? Will we leave the development of wind, solar and other renewable energy technologies to other regions and other states?
The recent initiative of Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire and the Fiscal Court to acquire property and earmark funds for construction of a Western Kentucky University campus in Owensboro underscores the important role of a group like the Citizens Committee on Education, which is celebrating its 25th year as an advocate for education in our community.
Several years ago, the Citizens Committee raised funds, solicited proposals, and hired a consultant to assess needs and opportunities in higher education in Owensboro-Daviess County. The study proved to be a wake-up call to elected officials, business and community leaders. Many were shocked that our community was at or near the bottom of most every postsecondary education indicator when compared with other benchmark communities.
Our state legislative delegation and WKU President Gary Ransdell are to be credited for convincing Gov. Beshear to include funds for the WKU-Owensboro campus in his budget proposal.
These officials, Judge Haire and the county commission deserve the accolades, as do the Citizens Committee on Education volunteers who were a critical catalyst for this exciting new community resource for learning and economic development.