On Tuesday, 2/16/21 the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved a proposal to create a “Commissioner Engagement Program”. It would be run within the county manager’s office under the communications director. It would include commissioner outreach and community advisory boards. The program would be effective in fiscal year 2022 and have a budget of $358,000. It would include two new staff members plus some technology costs. Some of it would come out of the existing county manager budget.
The first track would come out of the communications department with the following initiatives.
- Provide smart and targeted quality of life enhancements for each district.
- Make a new website or at least a separate web page.
- Develop a social media presence (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter)
- Publish newsletters
- Host public “coffees” and “chats”
Like most dysfunctional organizations, the first effort is to address the negative perception rather than the underlying problems. It is “putting lipstick on the pig”. It looks like the goal is to increase “public trust in government” without addressing the pattern of malfeasance. The stated goal is to “increase citizen engagement”. This might take the form of a backlash.
A second part of the initiative is to have a greater development focus called “Neighborhood Level Development Input”. This is to “re-engage local developers to expand community outreach and public education”. They want the developers to run more and better meetings describing their new developments. Such meetings feature one-way communication. The developers rarely consider any objections raised by the residents. The program would encourage a “dialogue”, but this seems no different from the present practice if the developer will not compromise. The county wants a “data driven strategy” based on polling. They want better PR. They would improve their standing if they would uphold the existing zoning.
- Commissioner Herman made the point that she wants to see the return of the earlier Citizen Advisory Boards (CAB’s). Will the new program have regular public meetings? The plan does not include restoring the earlier CAB structure. The meetings in the district would be up to the commissioner.
- Commissioner Hartung made the point that commissioners should not be appointing family members to local boards.
- Commissioner Hill thinks that more communication would be useful for her constituents in Incline Village.
- Commissioner Lucey claims that the original CAB structure was not effective. Every district is very different. The CAB’s should not be changed from the current roles. He is excited about this new program.
- Commissioner Jung likes a “toolbox” for commissioners to “personalize” their approach toward constituents.
- A member of the Sun Valley CAB described the utility of the earlier CAB structure and how it was able to serve the residents on a number of issues.
- The chair of the North Valley’s CAB says that they do not feel included in the whole process by the county commissioners. The CAB recommendations don’t get presented to the Board of County Commissioners (BCC). The CAB’s need to have some authority and there needs to be 2-way communication with the BCC.
- The chair of the Incline Village CAB reminded all that the CAB roles were limited by the BCC in 2014. Attendance in the Incline Village CAB meetings dropped dramatically after the CAB’s role was limited to development issues. Earlier meetings were attended by the Fire and Police representatives and informed the residents on many topics of local importance.
- A Warm Springs resident reinforced the point that the role of the CAB’s should be returned to the earlier scope.
- The chair of the Warm Springs CAB wants to have the CAB’s to have a greater role like they used to.
In meeting after meeting, year after year, the commissioners have listened to hours of residents’ testimony only to decide against them. They are getting plenty of “engagement”. They are simply not supporting the residents. The staff presentation even included a an eerie reference to the “silent majority”: a term coined by Richard Nixon. This brings to mind the slogan from 50 years ago “The majority isn’t silent. The government is deaf.”
The physical symbol of the problem the commissioners face with their constituents is the recent barrier built between the public and the dais. It’s a metaphor for the isolation that the commissioners seek from their constituents.