Transparency as clear as bricks
The matter of “transparency” as it relates to the City of Elgin, has been a topic of discussion for quite a few years. Naturally, we all want our local government to be transparent.
There are many aspects to transparency. One part of being transparent is being open to public input. Another part of being transparent is being open and honest with public input after it has been collected. So, what is the matter when public input is not honestly collected, and then those corrupted inputs are used to quash subsequent public input? It all gets to be a rather confusing cycle that can at times become a part of city government.
The following account which is connected to the paving of our Central Business District with bricks is my favorite example of public input in Elgin, how it can be abused in its collection, and how it can be abused in its use. This story is of particular interest at this moment, because the final stage of the downtown paving project was voted on last week (7/24/13) by the Elgin City Council.
In August of 2006, there was a notice in the Elgin Courier News inviting residents to participate in a public input session that would help to define the streetscape for the upcoming redesign of Elgin’s Central Business District. Two engineering firms had been hired by the City to develop the new downtown streetscape, and they would be running the public input session. Being interested in what was in store for the downtown, I decided to attend this weeknight session at the Heritage Ballroom.
When I arrived, I found that there were perhaps as many as 50 residents in attendance, maybe 5 city staffers and an equal number from the engineering firms that would be responsible for creating the downtown designs. After being allowed time to view downtown maps and artistic renderings that were on display around the room, the session was called to order. The residents were asked to divide themselves between 4 or 5 large round tables. The people at each table would form a team of citizens which we were informed were properly called “charettes”. Each charette would be moderated by an employee of the outside engineering companies, and would focus on one specific area of the downtown streetscape. The charettes were to be allowed about 15 minutes for a presentation by their moderator and some related group discussion. After 15 minutes, a bell would sound, and then each charette’s moderator would be allowed a turn to speak and present their group’s conclusion.
As luck would have it, I found myself in the charette that was to focus on downtown street paving options. I say luck, in that I have a moderate interest in concrete and decorative concrete. Earlier in that year, I had attended a major concrete trade show and attended some seminars on decorative concrete. But as I looked around the table, I also realized that I didn’t know any of my team members, though everyone looked to be quite friendly and eager to participate.
Our moderator started off by showing us beautiful renderings of downtown streetscapes using brick pavers. He quickly and leadingly suggested that we should consider the statement that brick pavers would make. One by one as we went around the table, everyone stated that they preferred concrete, and that bricks would be too expensive and require too much maintenance. Though I too simply preferred concrete for its economy and acceptable appearance, I also wanted to provide some unique input based upon my recent exposure to stamped concrete. So I suggested that we consider a hybrid approach, something called “stamped concrete” which if correctly executed can convincingly replicate bricks at a cost lower than real bricks.
Finally the bell was sounded and each charette’s moderator was asked to report their group’s recommendations. When they got to our moderator, he stood up and without hesitation, clearly pronounced that our charette had chosen bricks! Shocked and confused, I looked in amazement around our table only to realize that we were all equally dumbfounded by what we had just heard our moderator say. Yet amazingly, no one said anything, and within a few minutes, everyone quietly shuffled off into the night.
Maybe a year later, as I was attending a City Council session, during the recognition of persons present section, a citizen made a speech to the council, criticizing the Council for wasting money to pave the downtown sidewalks with brick. Then Mayor Schock shot back to the speaker that if he had input, that he was too late, that he should have offered his comments to the public input session, as that was the appropriate time for such comments. Again, I was shocked. But this time as I sat in silence, I was not confused, as it had dawned on me what was going on. I came to a new realization that the public input session on the downtown street-scape plan had been hijacked, and for a purpose.
The third installment of this lesson comes from July of 2009, at the City Council Retreat which was held at the Hawthorne Woods Nature Center. That was the first council retreat at which Sean Stegall presided as the new City Manager. At this session, Sean said that his wife had warned him about giving too long of a speech. But he then proceeded to go on at great length about his vision for creating a customer-centric city government. After talking about fallen tree branches and his vision of a 311 system, out of the blue he brought up the matter of the City choosing to use bricks for paving the sidewalks of the central business district. He said that the City had taken a lot of heat for choosing to use bricks. But he said that Elgin had an image problem, and because of that image problem, the City was compelled to be even better than Naperville. And THAT is what required the City of Elgin to choose bricks for its downtown streetscape.
These individual events, which I witnessed firsthand, should lead the average observer to consider the strong possibility that an important use of public input sessions in Elgin, may be to serve as a tool to make sure that those in power can get what they want. These sessions can later be used to stifle public input and make sure that the visions of City Hall can be carried out without interruption. Please remember this the next time there is a public input session, or when someone defends a City project based upon public input sessions!