Sunday Morning Meditation – Off the record
Whenever a politician wants to tell the truth, they ask reporters not to write it down.
That’s the essence of what “off the record” really means. Politicians, as a general rule, don’t trust the public to interpret unvarnished opinions or cold hard facts. Straight talk could get you run straight out of town.
But what happens when an entire public discussion goes offline? What does the public gain or lose when our elected officials engineer a discussion about public business that takes place behind closed doors?
This week, we dug a little deeper into the series of “focus groups” that the city of Decatur’s Police Department has been holding to develop the department’s strategic plan. That sounds like benign bureaucratic busywork, but context is everything. Since 2014, a group called the Decatur Community Coalition has been politely and persistently pushing the City Commission to address its concerns about alleged racial profiling by police officers. We found out that the city is paying a consultant $15,000 to coordinate a private discussion about the Police Department’s operations.
People participating in these conversations include members of the Coalition and other residents who have had negative experiences with the Police Department. They also include people that may be sympathetic to the Police Department, like graduates of the Citizen’s Police Academy.
In addition to the to the $15,000 contract for facilitating discussions about the Police Department, the city has entered into a $25,000 contract with a different consultant charged with holding a discussion about diversity. That group’s conversations have been taking place out of the public arena as well.
Let me be clear. I don’t think anything nefarious is going on at these meetings. I wouldn’t have time to cover all of them, even if I wanted to. But as I’ve asked around about this, I have yet to hear a clear or compelling reason that these conversations should be taking place in any other venue but a public forum. I’ve pressed hard on that question, and I get answers to the effect of “That’s the way we did it before” and “The conversations are more productive this way.”
“Focus groups are used in the beginning stage of the strategic planning process in order to keep the conversations centered, make them less intimidating than in a large community setting and to allow participants to speak freely,” City Manager Peggy Merriss told me. “This is similar to the process followed during the City’s highly successful 2000 and 2010 Strategic Plans.”
Don Denard, a former School Board member who first brought his concerns about racial profiling to the City Commission’s attention last year during a public meeting, is supportive of the city’s strategy. He told me that organizers and city leaders need to get their “ducks in a row” before engaging the rest of the public about this important issue. Denard said there’s been some straight talk going on behind those closed doors.
“It’s not all been Kumbaya or are we wonderful,” Denard told me. “It’s been very real.”
Focus groups may be neat and tidier for city officials to handle, but I’ve never been of the opinion that democracy has to be neat and tidy. Sometimes meetings go on forever and you miss dinner. People get ticked off and start turning an opportunity for public comments into a filibuster. Every so often, a guy has to stand up at the end of a meeting and spend 15 minutes telling commissioners that the city’s real problem is there aren’t enough public toilets.
And once in a blue moon, residents show up at the meeting of your progressive City Commission and tell you that you aren’t the city you think you are.
At the last City Commission meeting, Community Coalition Members showed up and confronted commissioners about their slow response to one of the Coalition’s letters. Remember, if it weren’t for a free and open public forum, we wouldn’t be having this discussion about racial profiling in the first place. If the city’s rationale for focus groups is basically, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” that could just as easily apply to the public comments that got us here.
The general public wouldn’t know if these conversations are productive or real because they weren’t invited. The city has promised a round of public input at some future date, but why shut the general public out of the discussion now? The city and its consultants are choosing who participates. There’s no guarantee that the roster will be reflective of the community at large. Why not allow other people to show up and observe these conversations and let our officials know if there’s something they’ve missed? Policing is a public issue and this needs to be a public discussion from start to finish.
The city is paying a seemingly never ending supply of consultants to do things that could be done quite cheaply.
Having a community discussion is not hard. All you have to do is set a time and a place, find a competent moderator and be sure to leave the doors unlocked.