Public Participation in Decision Making


Berlin

The Sidewalks of Old Berlin

[An Introduction To Working With The Public]

[Commentary by Sanford "Sandy" Wilbur]

May 2014

One morning (long ago, now), we listened to "Forum" on the radio as we ate our breakfast. "Forum", now long gone, was as far as I know,  the only talk show in the "North Country" of New Hampshire, and had been going on for many, many years. Most of the local folks either said they hated it or claimed not to listen to it, but everybody seemed to know what was being discussed. We liked it. Over the years, it gave us pleasure, and also a lot of insight into what's important in Berlin, NH.

Well, on this particular morning, some folks were complaining about the sidewalks that "the City" wanted to build. The issues were varied and not always too clear [or at least, not clearly-stated], but the upshot was plain: nobody was very happy. Over the next several days on "Forum," and with local newspaper coverage, the story became a little more understandable to me. Here's apparently what happened.

The city planners had heard about a federal fund for highway-related projects that the city might be able to take advantage of. Someone thought that a sidewalk north from the city toward the Technical College would be good both for safety and recreation, so they drew up a plan and submitted it. Surprise: they got the money, and announced the "good news" to the community. That was when - to use the tired but appropriate old saying - all Hell broke loose.

To go ahead with the project, the City needed written easements from each property owner affected by sidewalk construction - not one of them was willing to sign! The City actually hired an outside "negotiator" to talk to the landowners. He apparently was less than diplomatic about it - some said even threatening - and the dissatisfaction level increased. Sometime about that point, the Postal Service announced that, if the sidewalk went in, they would have to move all the mailboxes along that stretch to the other side of the street, ostensibly because the sidewalk would interfere with mail delivery by postal truck. "Across the street," in this case, meant across Highway 16 with city traffic, through traffic, and lots of big, fast logging trucks. What had been touted as a "safety project" suddenly became "our safety against their safety" - the local owners seeing themselves as being forced to cross the busy highway to get their mail so the non-landowners could walk by their houses in safety. The City approached the post office, but they were adamant against any compromise. Several interested parties tried to intervene with alternate schemes that might have worked, but everyone had taken sides by that time. Most of the people who wanted the sidewalk did not own property along the route; the property owners were almost unanimous against the project. One of the City planners got so frustrated that he publicly chastised the nay-sayers - he said, in effect, if that's the way you feel about all my good work, just see if I'll waste my time doing things for you in the future!

Fast-forward ahead several months: things have quieted down, and the City has managed to get enough support to move ahead with the sidewalk. Not everyone is "happy", but at least they aren't standing in the way of the project.

Happy ending? Tempest in a teapot? Just what you'd expect? Whatever it was, it is what happens day after day, year after year, when Government, businesses or organizations do things that involve THE PUBLIC [and what doesn't??]. Does it have to be this way? If you feel it isn't right, what would you have done differently?

 The Sidewalks of Old Berlin - Part II

So what, if anything, is wrong with the sidewalk story? Some folks would say nothing - or not much, anyway. The job is going to get done, and I suspect that most people would agree that ultimately it is a desirable project. Nobody got sued. The work only got delayed six months or so while the problems were resolved. Finally, the completed product is going to be better than the original idea because of "the bugs" that were worked out during the "public discussion".

I'm used to this kind of "success". In my 30-plus years of government service, I saw the Berlin sidewalk story repeated over and over and over again - only the details changed. You can outline the process this way:

(1) Decide to do something.

(2) Do it, if you're lucky.

(3) If you're not lucky and somebody objects, then either (a) forget it, or (b) try to figure out some other way to do it.

(4) Repeat #2 and (usually) #3 until you get something done (seldom what you planned or needed), or you get tired and give up.

[NOTE: You might not recognize the words I have used above. It's usually written something like this: (1) plan; (2) get feedback; (3) refine the plan; and (4) implement.]

Whatever terms are used, one has to admit that the process "works". It must work, because this is the model that is almost always used by government agencies, organizations and businesses, and things do get done. Nevertheless, more and more of us who have been involved in doing business this way are seeing that it isn't a good way to get things done.

Berlin, New Hampshire doesn't deserve to be picked on any more than any other community, organization or agency, but let me use the sidewalk project to address some issues that commonly arise at times like these. I apologize in advance if I mis-state some fact, or don't know some important point, but remember: I got my information the same way the majority of people get theirs. My mis-perceptions are probably shared by a lot of other folks.

STEP ONE, DECIDING TO DO SOMETHING - Berlin had been involved in a lot of good planning, at the time of this controversy - a downtown improvement initiative, the Northern Forest Heritage Park, and regional economic planning, among other activities. I didn't know how the sidewalk project fit into the overall planning scheme, but I'm not around all year so I may have missed the explanation. I know that at least one "public hearing" was held. On its own merits, the sidewalk appeared to me to be a desirable project. The money for the sidewalk came from a special fund that had to be competed for, so there was obviously a fairly comprehensive plan prepared. It was apparently a pretty good plan, because Berlin got the money.

STEP TWO, GOING AHEAD - Nope, they weren't lucky this time, so they didn't get to immediately cash the check and build the sidewalk. Why not? A lot of it can be tied to lack of preparing the public, but it looks to me as if there was at least one major fault with the plan, itself. That fault added a lot of confusion to the general dissatisfaction that might have existed, anyway. Here's what I think:

  • Public involvement in the process was certainly insufficient for that part of the public most directly affected - the landowners who were suddenly going to have their front yards disrupted by sidewalk construction, and who - because they needed to grant easements for the sidewalk - could most easily delay or sabotage the project. Apparently this most interested segment of the populace was treated just the same as the rest of "the public". [After the controversy broke out, a public official admitted on "Forum" that no special attempt was made to notify landowners of the public hearing, or otherwise explain the project to any of them, personally.]

       *   Public involvement in general was probably insufficient. I base this on the number of apparently legitimate questions that came up as soon as the City announced that they had received the money for the sidewalk. Typical were: how does this project fit in with the overall City plan; why are we spending money on new sidewalks when the old ones are falling apart; and, why are we spending money on sidewalks when [fill in the blank] needs doing? Some of these questions could have been headed off if it had been explained up front that this was special money that could only be used for certain new, highway-related projects, and also that it was "free" money - it didn't compete with things already in the City budget. However, that revelation added new questions, like: okay, we're building the sidewalk "for free", but where do we get the money to maintain it? However, these were easy questions compared to the ones that developed due to a serious oversight in the plan, itself.

     *  The revelation by the Postal Service that they would not deliver mail on the side of the street where the sidewalk was to be installed was a public relations bombshell, but it was also clearly a major logistics oversight. Suddenly, public safety was added to the mix. Clearly, the city planners had overlooked another vital segment of their "involved public": the Postal Service, itself.

STEP THREE, TRYING AGAIN - As so often happens, the second try was made more difficult by the problems generated during the first try.

  • The landowners were miffed, and even those who obviously began to see the sidewalk as a good thing were not ready to just "give in". The "government" had "done it to them" once again. They were going to make "the government" pay for the previous slight, and they were going to make sure that all their questions and concerns were adequately addressed this time around.
  • Those who wanted the sidewalk became very vocal about how desirable the project was, usually ignoring the concerns and feelings of the landowners. Arguments for "the common good" went over like they usually do, when someone from "away" tries to tell us what is good for us!
  • Some who had been at least passively in favor of the sidewalk before the controversy erupted now had questions, like how was the community going to pay for the upkeep of the sidewalk after it was built. Their voices were added to   the chorus.
  • The Postal Service apparently felt slighted in the process and, like the landowners, were not prepared to either back down or negotiate, at least not immediately. Some of the community peacemakers put forth a number of alternate plans to address the mail delivery logistics problems, but the Postal Service took its time before it "budged".
  • The city planners were frustrated, and [at least in the eyes of some of those involved] tried too hard to make their case. The negotiators who were sent out to try and get landowner easements probably would have been welcomed had they come around during the planning process, but this time around they were greeted like the Gestapo would have been. [Were they really "pushy" and "obnoxious", as some claimed? Not everybody thought so, but the stage had been set for confrontation and misunderstanding, and that's what occurred.] The frustration apparent in the one city planner complaining about "all his hard work down the drain" was greeted as one might expect it to be in the now highly polarized climate: who asked you to help us, anyway?

STEP FOUR, ONE MORE TIME - Yes, problems have been worked out, and [last I heard] the project had moved ahead. But think of the cost: the monetary costs in salaries, consultants, re-drafting plans, etc.; the time costs of delaying the project; the hard feelings generated; and the additional fuel provided for the folks who are always ready to believe that "the Government" is incompetent. 

Will anything be learned from this exercise, or will the next one be handled much the same as this one? I suspect the answers here will be the same as they are most places: not much, and probably. But, believe me, there are better ways. On the pages linked above, I've examined some other projects and tried to provide some insight into what went "right" or "wrong" with them.

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