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How Not to Conduct Civic Engagement

I’m so disillusioned with my Town Board right now.

The story starts late last year. One of the newest amendments to the New York Constitution, approved by voters this past November, has paved the way for construction of up to four casinos upstate, including (probably) one in my region. Predictably, some high-powered private partnerships, together with their “host” municipalities, jumped into the competition. One of those municipalities is my town.

Now I have always thought of casinos as a terrible idea, for the usual reasons cited: gambling addiction, crime, property value decline, etc. So, during a morning with Google Scholar, I was surprised to find that the research paints a very mixed picture. Casinos can deliver economic benefits, but intensifying competition is limiting their ability to do so. Addiction is serious business, but the percentage of problem gamblers is around 1-3%. Etc.

So I was more open to the idea of a casino in my town. And I looked forward to our town leaders doing similar web searches, engaging in similar thinking, listening to constituents, and making a reasoned decision.

Apparently, it didn’t turn out that way.

First came an unannounced Town Board meeting during which the members voted unanimously to endorse a casino in the town. In the face of vocal opposition, the Board scheduled a developer presentation and one public hearing with the typical “three minutes at the mike” format. Days later, the Board took a revote, required for technical reasons, and again endorsed the casino unanimously.

Except for the first meeting, this might sound innocuous. The real fly in the ointment, though, was the lack of response to residents’ concerns exhibited throughout the process. During the public hearing, Board members said barely a word. Many of us sent detailed emails asking the Board to conduct due diligence; I (and presumably others) received a form email in return. Most communication about the casino has come from the developers, not the Board. And meeting notes, made public via a Freedom of Information request, seem to indicate that the Board served as marketing partner for the developers from the very beginning—no hint of due diligence or objective analysis whatever.

What can we learn from this?

One Board member complained about the impossible time frame for the whole bid process, let alone any attempts at dialogue or civic engagement, and she has a point. Her objection led me to the handy Engagement Streams Framework, published by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member), to see what dialogue processes might have accommodated the compressed schedule. At first glance, the pickings are somewhat slim: a scaled-up version of Conversation Café might have worked, or maybe a variant of the Wisdom Council.

In some ways, though, that’s beside the point. Even if many dialogue processes can’t happen in crunch time, basic communication can: that’s why we have the Internet.  More fundamentally, even the best and most efficient dialogue process assumes a personal orientation to listen. That was what our Board members have, from what I’ve seen, failed to demonstrate.

As a caveat: I attended most of the public meetings but not all of them. I do not know the Board members personally. They might have a compelling backstory that would make sense of their actions in a way residents could respect. Communicating that backstory might have mollified a lot of the hostility—or at least indicated the Board’s sincerity in serving its constituents.

As it is, there are a lot of questions and, in response, an unfortunate silence.

(As always, your comments are welcome. In this case, comments from Board members are most welcome. I would love to hear your take on the situation.)

2 Responses to “How Not to Conduct Civic Engagement”

  • Tina says:

    Hi John, you have done a wonderful job documenting your experience! I hope you will share this with the NY Gaming Commission. I have seen your posts on Facebook and I recognize how open-minded you were to the possibility of a casino as well as to the Town Board. I too was disappointed by the lack of communication between residents and elected officials. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • admin says:

      Thanks so much, Tina. Truth be told, I’d still be willing to entertain the idea of a casino in theory–but not when it comes from this kind of process.

      You may have seen this, by the way, but just in case: According to this morning’s paper, our deputy town supervisor said that residents are being critical not because they didn’t get heard by the Town Board, but because they disagreed with the Board’s decision. I’ve met our deputy supervisor and like him quite a bit, so I’m sorry to see him being so tone-deaf here.

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