Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dark dialogue: public affairs in private places

Apparently an unsafe and discouraging environment

If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by "credibility gaps" and "invisible government,"..... - Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times


The Med City Beat (08.04.16)
Library expansion 
Staver's answer to the question of whether he supports a proposed $55 million expansion of the Rochester Public Library prompted a chorus of boos from the audience. "Not in that location," he said. 
He later clarified: 
I think the public library is a fundamental element of any community and we have a great one. I do have some issues with what we're trying to accomplish on that particular site. I'm thinking bigger picture here. I think, if we talk about the evolution of libraries, it's just not just stacks of books anymore. These are community gathering places; they are multi-media hubs. I think we should be thinking about a different location, perhaps, where we can embrace some of these new ideas. So I think spending that kind of money to expand in place is shortsighted. I really rather think more future
Allen, who was first to answer, simply said "yes." He did, however, provide a full explanation for his support of the expansion in a blog post earlier this year. 
Furst Draft (08.05.16)
The big headline of the night was the library issue: When asked whether the city should put $55 million into the public library expansion, Allen said yes, without a moment's hesitation. Staver said flatly, "Not at the current site." 
There was an audible gasp from many in the audience -- maybe there were boos, but from up front, I heard gasps... 
Staver went on to say he has "issues with what we're trying to accomplish on that particular site. I'm thinking bigger picture here. ... I think spending that kind of money to expand in place is shortsighted." 
That was a brave statement, especially in light of the campaign the library is running, which may be more energetic than any campaign in town right now. As an example: I asked for questions from the public in advance of the meeting, and about 10 were from people wanting me to ask the library question. That's good promotion. 
We've heard rumblings about an effort that's underway to find a new location for the library -- downtown -- that would dovetail with DMC and other goals. You may read more about that in Saturday's P-B. Library leadership and fans are dug in at the current site, but if they were offered a new, larger building elsewhere, presumably they'd listen. The current plan isn't flying ahead.
"Group deliberates public projects in private discussions" Post-Bulletin (08.06.16)
A high-ranking coterie of community leaders during the last several months has orchestrated conversations on pressing community needs, including a proposed $55 million expansion of Rochester Public Library. 
The ad hoc group also has explored the potential for collaboration between the library, Rochester Family YMCA, Minnesota Children's Museum of Rochester and University of Minnesota Rochester. Each organization has discussed facility and space needs publicly. 
Olmsted County Board of Commissioners member Sheila Kiscaden formed the group shortly after the county board declined to give a funding commitment to the library's expansion proposal. The proposal would have built on the current downtown location and provided needed space for community programming. 
Kiscaden described the group as people who have leadership, business and public project experience in the Rochester community. 
The group includes Rochester City Council President Randy Staver, Olmsted County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency Executive Director Lisa Clarke, Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President Rob Miller and retired leaders of Mayo Clinic, IBM and Rochester Public Schools.


"... it is an ad hoc, informal group that's just trying to be good citizens and good civic leaders trying to move something forward....."

Despite the no doubt sincere characterization of this group as just some civic minded folks getting together to chat about community needs, it does include the President of the City Council with the city's tax dollars, the President of the County Commission (plus one more county commissioner) with the county tax dollars, the Executive Director of the DMC Economic Development Agency with its state tax dollars sitting around with other selected - as yet unidentified save for the President of the Chamber of Commerce* - private citizens talking about us without us. There are big public purses in that room along with the folks who hold those purse strings and the folks they choose to talk to.

It's not clear how one reconciles the statements in this article that the group has "no official capacity" with so many high-ranking officials with capacity in the room.

Or what it means to say that a group representing not just serious political power and private influence but also millions in public dollars can "suggest" anything that doesn't have the effect of a "formal recommendation."

Or to say that whatever these organizations decide to do "it's totally up to them" when the President of the City Council is already on record in his response to the question Wednesday evening regarding support for the expansion of the Library: "Not at the current site," he said. People wondered where that position - asserted so confidently without hesitation - came from. Now we know.

If you've ever wondered how hockey arenas and new charter schools can seem to appear before the city council out of no where fully formed and ready for fast-track action, well it looks like these meetings.

"...if we can create a safe environment, an encouraging environment....."

A few weeks ago, a story broke about what was probably at least a flirtation among some to form "a 501(c)(4) — also known as "social welfare" organization ... to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money on political activities and lobbying without publicly revealing the identities of its donors." The parties purported to be involved issued denials that such an organization was formed. The issue was raised at the recent city council president candidates forum as well. The sort of money raised and donated through these organizations is often referred to as "dark money" because individuals and organizations can influence elections without having to disclose their participation. One might say this alternative - perfectly legal - path for donations creates a safe and encouraging environment for donors.

Organizing, convening, and conducting a series of meetings to work through the very real challenges and difficulties in formulating public policy out of the public eye where those impacted by these discussions are not present and/or where the public cannot witness or review records of the deliberations is a form of "dark dialogue." These are not simply routine conversations in service to constituents or stakeholders, but part rather of a deliberative process meant to influence public policy and planning that will in turn impact decisions regarding public expenditures. These deliberations are not supposed to be "safe." These deliberations should entail political risk for those elected officials who participate. That risk is at the core of representative government.

I appreciate those who want to create safe spaces where difficult subjects can be explored with candor. But our political discourse should not be delivered to the public with the wrinkles all privately pressed out and the rough edges safely sanded smooth. If all we get to see is the vote and not how that vote was influenced by "dark money" or "dark dialogue," then we are ill-served by those we have elected.

"While the group will make no formal recommendations, it has suggested....."

Last week I offered that one of the major local trends "is expressed in a question and exemplified in four groups that have erupted into our city's life since 2013" to consider "What is the future we want to create together?" The four groups briefly shared in the post included the Community Networking Group, Journey 2 Growth, Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative, and In the City for Good. They include all sorts of folks including city and county elected officials.
These groups were not elected or appointed or created by an act of any governing authority. They are all bottom-up groups, grassroots and grass tops. They are more and less organized; more and less formal; driven by volunteers and dependent upon voluntary associations. None of them have any money of their own to speak of and most would speak of having none at all. Increasingly they supersede groups that preceded them. As observed above, even though these groups may form initially in an anxiety arising from uncertainty and complexity, all four quickly embraced participation, accountability, and possibility. 
By virtue of its select invitations, its membership, its intent, and its conduct thus far, the group we have learned of this week is categorically different than those described above and will remain so. In the attempt to create a safe environment, it provides an insulated one instead. They may seek an answer the the same question, "What is the future we want to create together?" But, the electeds and "selecteds" that comprise the "we" make for a pretty feeble "together."

We have already made a place for this

A couple of the organizations being talked about (note none were in the room until summoned) are private, another is a state institution, but the fourth, the Library, is a major local public institution. It has a Board established in city ordinance with members appointed by the city and the county. The Library Board meets every third Wednesday of every month at 4:30 p.m. in Meeting Room C on the first floor of the Library. If there is a time and place and body with whom to "dialogue" about the future of the Public Library, that would be it. Perhaps it isn't the "safe environment" and "encouraging environment" these elected officials seem to prefer. Perhaps conducting the public's business in public can be a bit of rumpus and ruckus. But, perhaps, we should discourage the alternative.


* Subsequent to publishing this post, the Post Bulletin updated it's online story with a complete list of members:

Sheila Kiscaden, Olmsted County Board of Commissioners
Stephanie Podulke, Olmsted County Board of Commissioners chairwoman
Randy Staver, Rochester City Council president
Nick Campion, Rochester City Council
Lisa Clarke, DMC EDA executive director
Rob Miller, Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce president
Jenna Bowman, Rochester Downtown Alliance executive director
Hugh Smith, retired CEO and chair of the finance committee, Mayo Clinic
Walt Ling, retired senior state executive/senior site executive, IBM
Jerry Williams, former Rochester Public Schools superintendent
Kathy Meyerle, retired Emeritus Legal Counsel at Mayo Clinic

Note the absence of anyone from the facilities or organizations being discussed at these meetings.

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