Public forums for city planning such as this one in Princeton, Kentucky are a way of increasing participatory democracy in cities and towns across the United States. This kind of invitation to be heard within the political process inspires residents to take more interest and assume more responsibility in the formation of policy that will shape their community's future. It is a practice that should be far more widespread and would serve as a means of political empowerment for those who currently feel they have no say in political decisions that affect them directly. Rather than continuing to leave their futures solely in the hands of elected representatives, public forums such as these could be an important first step towards greater citizen participation. - Editor
Community forum charts city future
Times Leader Staff Report firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Community members took the first steps toward plotting the city’s future during a “Focus on Our Future” forum at the UK Research and Education Center Thursday night.
About 50 people attended the forum, the first of its kind held in the city in more than 10 years.
“This is not, tonight, an academic exercise,” said facilitator Dr. Darryl Armstrong, of Armstrong and Associates, an award-winning consulting firm based in Eddyville.
“It’s developing a vision for what you want your community to be in the future,” he said. “This is truly participatory democracy this evening.”
After an opening discussion, participants broke into smaller groups to brainstorm answers to three main questions related to the community’s future:
• What do you want Princeton and Caldwell County to look like, feel like and be like three to five years from now?
• If money were no object, what things would you like to see the community, working in collaboration with the government, do in the areas of education, recreation, health services, social needs, economic, community and tourism development, culture and the arts, environment, and police protection/crime/public safety?
• What things do we need to do in our community to make it a better place to work, live, play and visit?
Armstrong, assisted by co-facilitators Kay Armstrong and Cammie Evans, told the crowd that making the changes they sought could be done in cooperation with, not opposition to, local government.
“You don’t have to turn around your local government, because your local governments are coming to you and asking for input,” he said.
The forum was sponsored by the City of Princeton and the Main Street/Renaissance Program.
Results of the groups’ discussions suggested some common desires: additional local collegiate opportunities, better dining options, improved roads, expanded healthcare and childcare services, etc.
When the groups reconvened into one large group, Armstrong gave the crowd electronic handheld devices to allow them to vote anonymously on some new questions.
The first required participants to think of the community in the metaphor of an animal: either a lion (aggressive), an elephant (intelligent but slow to move), a gazelle (fleet of foot) or none of the above.
When asked how they perceived the community, nearly half of those responding chose “elephant.”
Armstrong said that answer almost always prevailed in the other groups and communities he worked with across the nation.
“Unfortunately, in our society, perception is the reality,” he said.
Participants then voted on the importance of improving in each of the eight areas discussed in the earlier breakout sessions, on a scale of 1 to 5.
A one vote meant improving in that area was irrelevant, while a five meant improvement in that area was very important.
The average response in nearly every area was above a four, with education topping the list.
“Anything above a three is pretty doggone important,” said Armstrong.
“Even the lowest one on the scale is 3.83, and that’s cultural arts. Anything above three needs to be seriously considered in this process.”
The third set of questions asked participants to gauge how well the community is performing now in the same areas.
The scale ranged from 1 to 9, with one meaning no performance, five being moderate and nine meaning perfect.
Education earned a 5.34 vote, the highest returned.
Responses in the other seven areas ranged between three and five.
Armstrong said some of the suggestions mentioned could be answered relatively quickly, in six to nine months.
Others would be more long-term goals, he said.
Any action would be positive, he noted.
“The more that you do, the more excitement that you build in the community,” he said. “The bottom line is, perceptions can be changed.”
“This is literally the community coming together, coming together to do the right thing at the right time and to move the community forward.”
In the next 10 days, he said, the firm will summarize the results of the meeting and provide a draft report to Mayor Gale Cherry and the city council.
A strategic planning committee will then be appointed; sign-up sheets were distributed at Thursday’s forum.
Armstrong and his associates will work with the committee to draft a “road map” for the community and seek public feedback.
A final report will then be completed and published, he said, and recommended the city issue a yearly report card to inform the community on how its goals were being achieved.
“The communities that have a plan in place are the communities that will grow and prosper, even in these difficult economic times,” he said. “We’ve seen it over and over and over again … it is time for citizens to understand they have to work in that process to make it better.”