Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Council (and Residents) "Listening"

I attended the first session of Council’s “Listening Tour” last night in the West End. The tours have been widely but poorly communicated online. No attendee, including myself, knew what to expect. Some people were disappointed that last night’s session wasn’t only for West Enders to voice their concerns about West End problems.

They began by letting people mingle and meet their reps and borough officials. One plus: they provided sandwiches and water. Maybe that will bring more people out next time.

Next, the 5 council reps present (Sonya Sanders, Olivia Brady, Valerie Scott Cooper, Hakim Jones and Heather Lewis) said they’d take a limited number of questions from the audience (which I think they should have done at the end instead). The first person, though, asked 3 long-winded questions, in a contentious way, arguing with every answer council reps attempted to give, so only one question was answered completely. The rest of us weren’t allowed to ask anything because we were told there wasn’t time.

The one question concerned 5 council members attending a workshop by the National League of Cities in Birmingham, AL. The questioner wanted to know if tax dollars were used to send the reps to Birmingham. The answer was yes. Personally, I have no problem with my taxes being used if I get better council reps back as a result. I’ve attended conferences myself for writing, music, teaching, etc., and I’ve always come back with more knowledge and insights, not only from the content of the seminars but from being able to network with people from around the country or world. Now, if Council began going to conferences every week or month, that would be a problem worth addressing. Once or twice a year isn’t going to break the budget. If we expect them to pay their own way, we need to give them a bigger stipend for the job. It’s thankless enough as it is. The questioner asked why only black council members went, implying that the white ones weren’t invited somehow (they simply couldn’t get off from work or chose not to go for other reasons). That question was particularly disturbing to me. We don’t need that kind of divisiveness in Norristown. People who try to create an us-against-them atmosphere, especially between races or cultures, are part of the problem, not the solution.

But on to the next part of the program.  People were asked to take a survey on Public Safety using their smartphones. Quite a few of us, including me, didn’t have smartphones, so we were given paper copies. They had this gimmicky app that let people see the smartphone responses cutely animated up on a screen (though I have to admit, I missed most of it because I was trying to give some thought to filling out a paper survey while taking notes for this blog at the same time). Also, paper surveys asked for our names while smartphone users could remain anonymous.

The problem with multiple choice surveys is that you only get a choice of the answers the questioners want to hear. And so often, their answers aren’t the only correct ones or the question needs a more nuanced response. (Example: Do you trust the police? Yes or No. My answer: I listed the things I trusted them to do and the things I don’t.)

For the questions that weren’t multiple choice, I could tell by looking at the screen that maybe 10-15% were giving thought-out replies while the rest were watching the screen and copying what someone else said. But I guess that’s still better than multiple choice questions.

Afterward, they collected the paper surveys (I hope they’re input into their database, but I doubt my non-conformist responses will be). Chief Talbot spoke a bit, then we had a chance to once more speak one-on-one with borough officials and reps, and that may have been the most productive part of the evening.

I give the Municipality a D for this first session. “Listening” didn’t figure into it, though they got a little input from the community. But it was controlled input and the gadgetry got in the way of honest opinions. The data might help a little, but it won’t solve the general feeling around town that Council ISN’T listening. Democracy is messy. As Chief Talbot said last night, he doesn’t mind hard questions. The rest of our government has to feel the same way.

Still, it’s not all Council’s fault. The contentious feeling in that room last night solved nothing (and it was contagious—by the end of the night, I was shouting at people and I went home feeling angry and frustrated). Shouting gets us absolutely nowhere. Leave your contention at home next time, or don’t come.

I hope to be at the next Town Hall. I’d suggest to Council that they do the smartphone thing before questions. Then allow people to discuss the topic without the gadgetry to elicit more honest responses. Maybe allow questions on other topics after that. And let people know on social media that this isn’t a normal Town Hall.

Maybe, Council, what you need instead is “Coffee with a Councilperson” every month in different parts of town. It’s helping the NPD. It might help you.

1 comment:

  1. This is from a resident who attended the meeting and gave me permission to post her comment from Facebook:

    I was one of the people answering questions using my phone. Sometimes there was not time to answer the questions because they were moving too quickly. For some three answers were requested. You couldn't give and informed logical answer because you only had a few seconds to write your answer. Also, some of the questions were repetitive. I agree that there was not enough information on the advertising about the format of the meetings. I only knew about the smart phone bit because you pointed that out last week. It's on the flyer, but it's not prominently displayed. People are angry and last night made some of them angrier.