Public consultation … too much, too little, too superficial, too
untimely, too formal, too predictable, too inconsequential, too driven
by the letter of the law rather than its spirit? Which is it?

A wide selection of scenarios greeted us last week on the matter of “consultation” with the public.

In Hastings, even as formal submissions are underway on the proposed Regional Sports Park, the mayor is pictured starting the bulldozing process for the new athletic field, while discounting the public “revolt” of an architects advisory committee that trashed Sam Kelt’s design.

On the other hand, Mayor Yule elaborated on his plans for an extensive public engagement process, including a public advisory committee, on the issue of sustainability for the Hastings District. Hopefully this committee will be more influential than the architects!

Over at the HB Regional Council … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! Oh! Yes, we’re being asked to comment on a regional coastal plan whose underlying data seems fundamentally flawed. While informed citizen complaints about the polluted Tukituki remain unanswered.

While over in Napier, consultation seems out of style.

In what clearly was a meaningless pro forma exercise, citizen Karrie Stephens was suffered to plead the case for the resident-venerated name of “Parklands Estate,” arguing the Council broke the law by not consulting with residents on its name recommendation to the NZ Geographic Board.

Meanwhile, Mayor Arnott indicated there would be no formal public consultation on the design for the contemplated re-build of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, saying: “We’re not going to put it out before the public any more than we have done.”

The previous week, the Napier Council conducted a closed-to-the-public “seminar” on the museum proposal, intended to acquaint new councillors with the project, present the design, and let all councillors express any issues and concerns.

Such seminars — a device used by all councils — are where the rubber really meets the road. Where unencumbered by the prying eyes of the public, councillors can really let their hair down, find out what’s going wrong, and ventilate on the important issues. Precisely the sort of elucidating discussions one might think the “open meetings” law is designed to guarantee public access to.

Fat chance. These seminars are intended to skirt public access and accountability. The public, it appears, is too ignorant, immature, politically naive or vindictive, or otherwise incapable of witnessing our elected officials conduct our business.

We just get to go to the tidy public portion of the “official” council and committee sessions (as opposed to the “public excluded” portion … eventually, I get “invited” out of every meeting I attend), where decisions already made are ratified by — almost always — unrecorded voice vote.

And they wonder why so few of us bother to vote in elections!

So what’s the story here?

Do we have too much consultation … to the point where citizens (and/or the councillors) find it meaningless? I’ve heard both sides say: “We already know what they’re going to say (or do), so why bother?”

Is the public just too dumb and uninformed to have anything meaningful to say … so why go through the motions? Might the issue be — especially considering the preference for private seminars — that the councillors are just as dumb and uninformed as the rest of us, and dare not confirm our worst fears?

Maybe some things — like design of civic buildings and sports parks — just don’t lend themselves to broad discussion, or much less consensus. I confess to being skeptical of doing anything creative by committee.

Maybe we’d be more likely to get the amount of public consultation right if we paid more attention to getting the quality and context right.

For example … Councillors, don’t bother asking our opinions if you’ve already made up your mind. That practice alone would save tons of energy on both sides of the table. On the public side, it would allow us to step up our game on the issues where timely public involvement might actually be significant and useful. Maybe Mayor Yule’s sustainability committee will confirm this point.

Another example … Councillors, while we the public might not be able to design stuff, we are very able to tell you what we don’t like. And those visceral reactions, especially if negative, will rub off on you. So ignore them if you like on the cosmetics of the new museum, Mayor Arnott, just be sure to get the final check-off from Napier voters before you start writing the big checks next year. What citizens wanted in 1999 might not be what they want in 2008 when they’re staring at an actual design and price tag.

Public consultation … too much, too little, too superficial, too untimely, too formal, too predictable, too inconsequential, too driven by the letter of the law rather than its spirit?

The correct answer … all of the above!

Tom

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