Shiloh Community Concerns, B&C Working Group Report

In the open discussion portion of yesterday’s City Council meeting, I reported on Shiloh Community concerns about pedestrian access to the proposed redeveloped Ingles at South Forest plaza. I also gave Council and the City Manager heads up about the community’s urgent request for a traffic light at Jeffress and Hendersonville Ave.

I also updated them on the progress being made by the Boards & Commissions ‘Realignment’ Working Group.

Hybrid Meetings Should Be The Norm

This comment to City Council was made because Council is imposing a policy of all in-person meetings for Boards & Commissions, unless a super-majority votes to meet remotely. There is no provision for hybrid meetings at all, yet. (The irony is that I’d just come from a very successful hybrid meeting of a B&C Realignment Working Group subcommittee, supported technologically by Patrick Conant of Code for Asheville. There really is no excuse for not doing this routinely.)

In contrast, Council is now allowing itself to meet all in-person, all virtual, or a hybrid mix of the two. “Rules for thee, but not for me.”

The Future is Hybrid. Hybrid meetings are more accessible and environmentally more sustainable.

Advocating for the Boards & Commissions Working Group

Yesterday evening, during City Council’s open comment period, I took the opportunity to tell Councilmembers about the progress the Working Group has made in our effort to bring meaningful data into the process of “realigning” Boards & Commissions.

Our work will not be done in September. We should not be disbanded, but rather allowed to analyze the results of the survey we’re designing, and use them to inform our recommendations to Council on how to move forward. Our findings should also be made available to the public.

July Meeting of the Boards & Commissions ‘Realignment’ Working Group

Yesterday’s Boards & Commissions ‘Realignment’ Working Group meeting left me reeling.

Why? Because Council and City staff have apparently moved forward with a pilot version based on the original realignment proposal that the group roundly rejected early on. Because staff told us that they had heard us and were pressing pause, rebooting, and starting from scratch so that we could actually have meaningful input. Because we were given the impression that our participation was going to provide actual guidance on how the process moved forward.

Apparently this was pure placation. Council and Staff have launched a pilot effort “on a separate track.”

We had asked that the City do what they should have done from the start: survey past and present Board & Commission members about their experiences in serving to determine what is and what isn’t working well with the current system, and to solicit ideas for what could be improved. Staff drafted up a survey based on some preliminary input and circulated it for our review. Before the meeting I sent an email to all participants and City Staff with my notes and suggested revisions/additions. I invited participants to comment and as you can see, they did so.

During the meeting, it seemed evident that Staff wanted to just move on to sending out the survey, and only to current B&C members. They said they had no record of past members’ contact information (!!!!!) and so they couldn’t survey people from pre-pandemic years. Participants in the working group assured the City staff that they could pull together a comprehensive list, given a bit of time. (I have an address book that goes back at least 40 years. I am seriously shocked by the revelation that the City doesn’t keep good enough records to have names, addresses, and contact info for everyone who has served.)

Once again, there was substantial push-back from the Working Group attendees. The meeting and pre-meeting materials were not accessible to all (as mentioned by a sight-impaired member). We were collectively blindsided by the revelation that a pilot based on what we considered to be a flawed model was already underway, complete with subordinating one B/C to another (AHAC to HDC). And we were surprised by the Staff’s expectation that we were going to rubber-stamp their draft survey.

In the end, the outcomes of the meeting were these:

  1. we agreed that the purpose of the survey was to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the current B&Cs and to get an understanding of members’ experience of serving and solicit their ideas for improvement;
  2. we agreed that the Working Group would collectively edit a common document to generate a list of questions that we wanted to see on the survey, and that at the next meeting we would finalize that list;
  3. the draft survey would NOT be sent out in early August. And that when a survey was sent, the full responses would available to us.

I asked staff to create a single document with all the proposed questions (combining the draft survey, suggestions from the previous session, and from my ‘notes’ document) for us to edit together. I hope they will move expeditiously to do so. I didn’t want the work, going forward, to be living on my google drive. It should be a City-owned process.

The video of the meeting, chat capture, a clean PDF of the draft survey—I cobbled one together and posted it to my Google drive before the meeting, but it’s messy—are all supposed to be posted on the Working Group’s project page, but they’re not, yet. (Nor is the June Working Group meeting.)

I’m trying to be as dispassionate as I can about this, but I know I’m not alone in the working group in my reaction to how this going. We are disappointed. We feel we have been snowed. The “separate track” is essentially the initial implementation of the approach our group has deep and appropriate concerns about. I wouldn’t be surprised if Council and Staff ended up presenting it (the “separate track”) as a successful ‘fait accompli’ and the subsequent disregard of any results we get from a comprehensive survey—if in fact we ever get to do one.

As a City, we deserve better. We deserve real transparency. We deserve the processes of our government to be accessible and responsive. We deserve good record-keeping. (Seriously, the reason given for not having contact info was that “it has to be entered manually” — where oh where is my fainting couch? Manually!?! Perish the thought! Amazingly, I have an address book that’s decades old and has hundreds of entries, all of which I’ve made manually, can you imagine the toil?)

Most of all, we deserve to be able to trust that representations made to us about how our participation will be incorporated into decisions will actually be honored. I’m particularly outraged on behalf of all those in the Working Group who have also served on Boards & Commissions, giving freely of their time and expertise for the betterment of our city, and are now having their further willingness to contribute treated so cavalierly.

So, this is already too long. I’ve undoubtedly gotten some details wrong, and I’ve surely expressed myself with more candor and snark than is particularly wise. The Working Group is currently scheduled to run through September. I hope we can turn this around, but I’m not especially optimistic just now.