Last night, the Gas Well Task Force held a public meeting for no apparent reason. It was supposed to be the grand unveiling of the draft ordinance that has spent the past six months in a cocoon of expert review (making it 'scientifically and legally defensible'). But the draft never emerged. Just when the presentation was about to cover the new ordinance it was cut short. The members of the Task Force sat there looking gloomy and dazed. Ed Ireland pointed out that, in fact, the Task Force is now essentially defunct. It will not be debating the new ordinance or offering new ideas. So, now we were at a meeting of a zombie group to discuss nothing in particular.
And at that point - once it was clear that we would not be told anything about the new ordinance and once we understood that this Task Force is moribund - we were asked for our thoughts. It was surreal. It was also indicative of the way citizen input is conceived in this process: a non-essential tack-on of emotional irrelevance. Citizen input is like releasing a steam pressure valve once in a while: you do it not for reasons of productivity but simply to keep things from boiling over. And having no information on which to comment, the public played that role nicely. We did all we could, which was to essentially to let out a collective "Ugh?!"
But here is what I should have said with my three minutes:
Thank you Staff and members of the Task Force for at least trying to democratize the crafting of a highly technical document. Tonight illustrates the main problem with this experiment. Citizen involvement has been kept to the margins - some at the beginning and some at the end. But in the middle is the hard kernel of expert review that was kept hidden from sight. The process is too linear and compartmentalized. It separates the 'lay' citizens with their 'concepts' from the 'experts' with their technical 'language.' But in reality the language is the stuff of politics - it is where values take concrete form. So, the walled-off technical review has been a secret space where values choices were made without any form of democratic legitimization, deliberation, or justification.
A more productive approach would be a dialogical one that crosses and blurs the expert/lay borders - one that educates citizens such that they are capable of understanding and challenging the frames and assumptions brought to bear by the experts. We needed a process that is entirely out in the open, not one that does the real work behind the scenes. There are methods for this citizen-stakeholder-expert dialogue, such as consensus conferences. They take planning, but they can be done.
It is too late now in this process to re-invent it. But how about this for the Oct. 22nd meeting -- we allocate the entire two hours to a structured dialogue. We hold it at the civic center where we can all sit at the same level. We get all members of the Task Force (including the non-voting, behind-the-scenes experts) to join. We first give citizens 15 minutes to organize. They form groups around key themes/questions/ideas. These groups then get about 10 minutes (depending on attendance) to enter into a conversation with the Task Force about their theme. They can pose a question and get a reply and make a rebuttal, etc.
This treats citizens as at least potentially productive parts of the process and helps us to democratize expertise by forcing some justification for ordinance provisions and omissions.