"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

September 17, 2007

Pulaski Park On The Agenda at 4pm For Tonights Special, Joint BPW/City Council Meeting.

[Post Updated In Italics With Notes From The Meeting]

But it's now 3.19 pm, and lots of good this post will do to help get the word out. The meeting is at the DPW lot on Locust St. But I should note that my intent here is not to publicize the meeting, or more specifically, it's agenda, but instead to discuss the lack of effort made by City Hall to actively include the greater public in important city affairs.

"...our city government has never tried to create any committees in secrecy. The point of forming these kinds of committees is always to bring in the perspectives and expertise not currently at the table to get a job done. What often happens, though, is that people live busy lives and may not read the paper every day and may easily miss a few paragraphs about a meeting that recently happened; or it sometimes happens that no reporters are available to attend the meetings and they don't end up in the paper at all."
The above emailed response came from Karen Bellavance-Grace, the Mayor's aide, in a response to some questions I had late last week about the creation of the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee recently formed. I was emailing with her attempting to ascertain just how public the decision to form the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee was. What meetings of what departments noted it and when, when and where did city officials discuss it publicly, etc...I want to note that the questions I had for Karen in our emails were not meant to imply that I felt that City Hall was forming committees in secret. I do not believe they do so. But it is clear to me that what City Hall thinks is publicly available information differs markedly from what I feel is actually publicly available information. City Officials and Department Heads are not the public. The Gazette and Chamber of Commerce are not the public. Discussing it at meetings when the public is not attending is not public. And though you could argue that posting a meeting on a bulletin board in City Hall makes it public, I think it's clear that more could be done.

At best, the current methods display an ignorance of how most people receive information, and at worst, it implies an awareness of those very methods of communication which would reach the most vulnerable concerns, and which are ignored with intent.

Case in point; tonight's joint meeting between the City Council and the BPW, which was noted in today's Daily Hampshire Gazette, without any agenda mentioned. Joint meetings between the BPW and the City Council at 4pm don't happen everyday. Especially interesting, as it comes the day before yet another very important meeting, the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee meeting scheduled for tomorrow at 5pm on the second floor hearing room of City Hall, a committee formed by the Chairman of the Board of Public Works, Bob Reckman.

I was alarmed when I noted the meeting in today's paper, as I suspected that Pulaski Park would be on the agenda, and that the public did not know about this. I was concerned that decisions would be made or opinions formed without public input. I walked over to City Hall to inquire as to what was on the agenda for tonight's meeting, and my suspicions proved correct. Pulaski Park was indeed on the agenda. How was this meeting publicized? The BPW and the City Council are going to discuss amongst themselves one of the most important community developments in recent history, and who knew? Who knew and how did City Hall get the word out? [Update: After attending the meeting, I found that the meeting is a regularly scheduled meeting between the BPW and the City Council -of which a sub-committee of members of each board attend- recently formed to help facilitate a better understanding of the goings on between each group. Ha! Apparently the general public is not the only group having difficulty getting information. Bob Reckman informed the members of the city council who were there (Ray Labarge, Paul Spector, and Marilyn Richards) about the process he went through forming the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee, who was on it, and what he hopes to achieve via the Pulaski Park Redesign Committee. (mid-summer, Wayne Feiden, the City Planning Director, introduced Nancy Denning to the BPW as a landscape architect who would like to donate her services to the city and help with the redesign of the park. After that meeting, Bob was charged with forming a committee to oversee the redesign of the park) He noted that he would like the whole community to be involved in the redesign of the park, most notably because the City doesn't have any money to pay for it. Apparently he is hoping people will step up to the plate in terms economic help. Bob noted that the Tree Committee has money for plantings he hopes they will use in the park, and also noted that the hotel slated to be built on the park's east side is spending money to expand the park eastward, to meet the front of the hotel, and that hopefully they can be encouraged to spend that money in a way that benefits the whole park, as opposed to just the area they need to expand.]
"...What often happens, though, is that people live busy lives and may not read the paper every day and may easily miss a few paragraphs about a meeting that recently happened; or it sometimes happens that no reporters are available to attend the meetings and they don't end up in the paper at all."
Ok, fair enough. But the meeting posted in today's Gazette made no mention of the agenda. If I didn't have a healthy skepticism about the ability of City Dept's to be appropriately transparent, and a knowledge of the current issues at hand, I would not have thought to inquire as to the agenda tonight. Included below are screen shots of the city's website, -from the City Council's page and the DPW's page- taken this afternoon, neither of which make any mention of the meeting. As a matter of fact, in the calender of events at the City's website which notes a variety of city meetings for any given month, there is nothing listed for today's date. Additionally, I included photos from the bulletin board in City Hall, to illustrate the almost unnoticeable notice about this meeting posted there. [Update: At the meeting tonight, the attending members discussed posting of BPW meeting minutes and agendas online, as it was noted that many residents have been making requests for this. Ned Huntley, director of the DPW, noted the difficulty with posting agendas, as they commonly are not finalized until the evening prior. The idea was received favorably though, and it is an option they would like to pursue. It was also noted by Ned that tonight's meeting most likely was not posted on the calendar of meetings online because of unspecified problems they are having with the use of the calendar. "The meeting was originally scheduled for last Monday," Ned said, "but was rescheduled for today. If you look on the calendar, it is probably listed under last monday's schedule. " After checking, I see it is not listed there either.]

The only way you could have found out about this meeting was to have noticed the posting on the bulletin board at City Hall, or to have seen it in the Gazette today. Neither places mentioned the agenda, so if even you did see the notice, you would have had no idea that Pulaski Park was the on the agenda.

There on the bulletin board in City Hall which note City Meetings, papers that all look the same, and which are all 8x11 sheets, I saw this little scrap of paper less than half the size of the rest. The notice announced a joint meeting between the City Council and the BPW. It had no agenda included, and was not posted on, nor near, the sheet listing City Council meetings. It was instead, literally nestled in between numerous other 8x11 sheets of paper, almost hidden and partially covered on the bottom by another piece of paper.

This is in contrast to another sheet of paper which listed a special joint meeting between the City Council and the Board of Health, a sheet of paper that was 8x11, and which included the topics to be covered at the meeting.

I want to be clear that I am not implying an attempt was made here to keep this meeting and the agenda hidden. I am however implying that the City of Northampton has a lot to learn about creating an inclusive and informed citizenry, and I'm not really buying their argument that they just don't know what else they can do to get the word out.

Can you find tonight's meeting posted at this screen cap of the BPW's page? It's not there.

Can you find tonight's meeting posted here at this screen cap of the City Council's meetings? Not here either.

Is it posted here on the City's calendar of meetings? No, not here either.
How about on this bulletin board, where the City is legally obligated to post them? Keep looking, it's there.
Can you see it now? This is fun, it's like 'Where's Waldo'
See it now? Look close. That little piece of paper hiding in plain view. (click the photo for a closer look)
I'd like to thank the City of Northampton for making this information publicly available, and not only that, but also making it easily accessible and inclusive of any and all relevant information.

LABELS: city government