Austin, Texas — Whatever happened to the democratic process in "community involvement" with major public projects?
That question is being asked with respect to a "public involvement process" connected with Project Connect, a major rail transit planning effort now under way in the Austin area.
Public interest in Project Connect has grown as officials have moved toward a decision on the first phase of an urban rail system that would use light rail transit technology to meet mobility needs and stimulate economic development. While officials have preferred a starter rail line from the city's downtown out to a new development site at the old Mueller airport, a growing segment of the central Austin community want the first line to serve heavy inner-city traffic flow in a corridor dermarcated by two major central arterials — Guadalupe St. and North Lamar Boulevard.
That corridor also serves the West Campus area next to the University of Texas, a neighborhood boasting the third-highest population density of major Texas cities.
Political tension of the alternative alignment versus the official plan has fueled demands for a more democratic process of citizen involvement in the planning program, and officials at first agreed to democratic community meetings. However, Project Connect suddenly altered course and substituted a series of "open house" events that replaced public meetings with individual one-to-one contact between attendees and staff.
A Project Connect representative argued that this was more "flexible" for many in the community, but many activists perceive another bureaucratic retreat from a fully democratic procedure.
In a Sep. 25th article, the Austin Rail Now blog warned that
Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.
However, says the blog, "This community interactivity is lost in the individual, one-on-one format of “Open Houses”, which have no set agenda, no community public speaking, and involve agency personnel displaying graphics of their pre-determined plans and chatting individually with the occasional community members that might attend the event."
A followup article dated October 1st notes that
It should be noted that Project Connect is also deploying other means of communication with the public, in addition to “open house” events — a webinar was held this past Friday, and project staff are also considering workshop-style small-group activities. Plus the team are outreaching through individual meetings with various community groups.
However, argues the blog, "while these are worthy activities, they still don’t substitute for the fully democratic process inherent in full, multi-group, diverse community meetings."
Project Connect, the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other public agencies have a crucial responsibility to facilitate these kinds of cross-community, cross-demographic, cross-organizational, fully diverse, fully democratic public meetings. So far, they seem to be trying to avoid them like the flu.
Austin Rail Now affirms that it "will continue to support efforts to reinstate the truly democratic public meeting process as Project Connect moves forward with its planning activities."
Note: Examiner reporter Lyndon Henry has contributed some material to the Austin Rail Now blog.