On June 12, 2017, the Kickoff Meeting for the Strong At Heart effort was held. Over 200 citizens attended and shared their thoughts about the state of affairs in Taos. While many issues were raised, one theme stood out: Taosenos have lost trust in this administration.
In answer to the question “How are we doing working together as a community?” the response was overwhelmingly negative. The summary of the public comments produced by the Strong At Heart consultants is very revealing, with numerous expressions of frustrations, such as: no trust in leadership; the Council does not listen to the community; lack of respect for citizens; lack of transparency; poor decision-making process; deals being cut behind closed doors.
This is very sad. It divides us when we most need to be coming together. We have finger pointing and insulting comments about citizen participation when we desperately need more collaboration.
Job one of the new administration must be to restore trust in local government. As Mayor I will work to restore that trust every day.
Restoring trust requires at least two things: new processes and true transparency. Processes must be created that create opportunities for the public to have a meaningful role in decisions. A sense of respect for the role of citizenry must be restored. Restoring trust also requires a new attitude about what the public has a right to know, and when.
Regarding process, public hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Town Council do not provide an opportunity for meaningful participation. Providing three minutes for each person to voice an opinion does not promote a dialogue. It does not offer an opportunity for negotiation and compromise. Three minutes only provides a chance to briefly state why you support or oppose something, and is often only an emotional plea. In the end it creates a win-lose outcome when we need to search for win-win results.
As Mayor I will insist that we adopt processes that result in meaningful public involvement. For example, a Citizen’s Task Force should have been created for both the Couse Pasture rezoning and the creation of the Hotel Overlay Zone. Each Council Member could have appointed one member of the Task Force. Discussions could have led to tradeoffs and compromises that had widespread community support, a win-win. The Task Force recommendations would be presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission and Town Council for their consideration and possible revisions.
In some instances, a better approach could be the creation of a sub-committee of Planning and Zoning or a sub-committee of the Council. The sub-committee would provide a forum for a dialogue on the issue. Everyone with an interest in the issue would be invited to participate. The public would feel that they had been respected and listened to.
In order restore trust we must also increase transparency at the Council level and at the staff level. It is not acceptable for Council or staff to be in discussions with a developer for a year or more before the public is made aware that something is brewing. The public has a right to know the general nature of the discussions early on.
Policies and guidelines should be adopted that require relevant staff (Town Manager, Economic Development Director, Planning Director) report monthly to Council about potential development opportunities or possible upcoming policy decisions. The Council can then advise staff what sort of public involvement is likely to be needed so no one is taken by surprise.
A commitment to more open government sometimes takes more time and energy than a top down approach. It can just as easily result in saving a developer time and money by finding out up front what the community will support. Otherwise plans may have to be revised several times, at considerable expense, to reflect unforeseen problems. Sounds like a win-win.