How will the Corporation of the City of Grand Forks be governed over the next four years with a new mayor and six councillors, each with their own vision of how the city should be run? The question is a legitimate one that is on the minds of many residents, given the public criticism of the outgoing council for the better part of 2014.
What is known about the new council is that three of them have council experience. What is not known is whether individual members will be able to put aside their personal biases and work with others to formulate a clear vision for the future and govern the city to the satisfaction of the majority of residents.
The council’s first major task is to develop a strategic plan to guide its work through the next four years. Will it continue what has been the practice for several years and do its planning without public input or will it break with tradition and involve city residents?
Past strategic planning sessions have involved the council and staff in a two-day planning session in early January where issues relevant to the operation of the city are discussed and prioritized.During the election campaign issues that were mentioned were wide ranging: a decaying infrastructure, revitalizing Market Avenue, growth and development in the area, job creation, the need to make Grand Forks a GMO-free zone, food security, and water conservation, to name a few. Will some or all of them remain on the council’s list?
None of the councillors or the mayor presented enough information during the campaign to give voters any idea of what they might pursue once in office.
The outgoing council was admonished by a group of residents who were furious about not being involved in the decision to install water meters. The group presented a petition and called for a town hall meeting but to no avail. Did they have a legitimate case? After all, the matter of water meters had been discussed by councils for over a decade.
The City of Portland, Oregon believes in public involvement and to ensure that city decisions “respond to the needs and priorities of the community,” city government developed a set of public involvement principles in 2010, based on the premise that “Portland city government works best when community members and government work as partners.”
The Portland model is formed around several basic principles: that community members have a right to be involved early in city policy development and city programs and projects; that working relationships with the community must be long-term and collaborative; that public inclusiveness is critical; that design processes must be flexible enough to accommodate a range of projects or policies; that public decision-making processes must be open, honest and understandable; that public decision-making processes are transparent (accessible and open); and that city leaders and staff must ensure that public involvement is meaningful.
What form will public involvement take in the next four years in Grand Forks, if it takes place at all? Will time-consuming and costly referenda be used? Will town hall meetings occur regularly? Will questionnaires be used on occasion to determine public opinion? Will the social media become a common means of communication?If the council and staff agree that public involvement is critical on all major initiatives, their first major task has to be to develop a set of principles similar to those adopted by the City of Portland.
Should the council and staff decide public involvement is time-consuming and unnecessary, residents could form an advisory council comprised of a wide cross-section of the population. Such a group could provide much needed information on how the public feels about city initiatives of all sorts.
Perhaps there should be an advisory council regardless what the council and staff decide.