Err on side of transparency

A representative of the city’s Planning Department wrote a guest column last week (“A rebuttal on Strawberry Plant” ) in response to the previous edition’s editorial (“Is the process truly public?”), the thrust of which was that the editorial was full of misconceptions and misinterpretations.

Perhaps. Hopefully not, but mistakes happen. Take, for example, a misperception in the column, which said that the editorial “suggested a boat haul out and repair area could be a potential use for the site, but such a use is prohibited by existing regulations.” Actually, the editorial said that such uses had been suggested by residents and did not endorse them. The argument was not so much what the city was going to do with the park, but that it decided not to inform 99 percent of island residents about a city meeting that some of them may have wanted to attend.

Yes, as was stated in the editorial, there are environmental buffers and constraints that restrict the use of the land and waterfront at the park. The point, however, was more about the city’s decision to limit access to an event that involved the public’s best interests. The city-employed columnist argued that the nature of a design charrette limits capacity to the event and that the city had a “broad representation” by sending out more than 150 invitations to neighbors and so-called “stakeholders.” (The Review, the city’s official newspaper for legal notices, learned about the event from another uninvited entity and was not officially welcomed by the city until after the editorial was printed.)

The decision not to publicize the event because of the need to keep the exercise intimate for efficiency’s sake is a lame excuse at best. Only a few people with a strong interest in the neighborhood park were going to give up four hours of a beautiful Saturday afternoon to sit in City Hall. There was plenty of room, of course, and the few uninvited people who “snuck” in didn’t bother anyone. Why not just post a public notice and deal with the numbers that arrive? Why not err on the side of what’s best for the public?

No, this was about what was best for the city and the planners. As committed professionals they have a tough job – as do most public employees these days. But arguably the most important part of it is to ensure that the people who pay their salaries are encouraged to become part of the process in a meaningful way. Especially those who may have a difference of opinion. In this case, the city made a calculated decision to do just the minimum, rather than opening it up to a public that often feels left out of the city’s decision-making process.

Check out the irony of this paragraph: “In the future, we hope the Review will contact the city regarding our projects and processes. We are willing to share information to help avoid misconceptions and misinterpretations in future editorials or stories.” That’s big of them.

Some islanders have said that any criticism of the city too often makes it slide deeper into the bunker it currently inhabits. Hopefully not, but if that’s true, well, they’re just bringing it on themselves. Consistent transparency by government – whatever the level – can certainly go a long way toward healing a breach in credibility. Especially here, where most people are open and understanding.

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