The Myth of Public Input
Often times you’ll be in a city, county, or school district meeting and you’ll hear our leaders say “how important” it is to get public input. We most recently heard this in a School Board Master Planning Committee meeting. The Park City School District is likely proposing realigning grades, building a new Treasure Mountain School, and issuing a bond to pay for it. The committee is planning on having at least 3 meetings to explain their plans and to get public input. On the surface that seems great. Yet, often in reality, it seems more like going through the motions.
Take, for example, the Mother of All Public Meetings, the recent Mountain Accord Meeting at Park City High School. Over 350 citizens spent their evening attending the meeting. The public comments were
completely largely negative, and ranged from comments on cost to environment to practicality to who benefits from the Accord. You’d be hard pressed to come out of that meeting and think anything other than the Park City public does not want the Mount Accord. The next day the Summit County Council discussed whether to continue funding the Mountain Accord. If the council listened to the public, the discussion would have been short and Summit County would not be still discussing whether to spend $150,000 over the next three years on the Mountain Accord.
To be fair, council member Roger Armstrong has been an outspoken critic of the Mountain Accord and did question whether the “Accord Money” could be used better, council member Dave Ure stated he didn’t think the Accord did much for us, and council member Claudia McMullin hates the idea of connecting the Cottonwoods to Park City. Yet, it was said multiple times, “I don’t mind spending the $150,000 to keep the seat at the table.” Yet if the public input really mattered, our County Council would stand up unanimously and say “The people have spoken. We are done.” If that’s not going to happen here, when will it happen?
There are likely a number of reasons for this:
- First, these committees or groups with big ideas meet and plan for so long that they have a strong idea of their direction. It’s a locomotive that’s built up tremendous speed and a little snow on the tracks isn’t going to stop it.
- Second, there are professional people running groups like Mountain Accord. These are people that know how to get what they want hire the people to make sure it happens. That’s why the Mountain Accord is budgeted to spend $3 million on “public outreach.” They aren’t stupid.
- Finally, many concepts receiving public input are started because someone wants something. They don’t materialize out of thin air. Someone with clout wants to connect Park City to the Cottonwoods, or maybe they wanted to make Sandy an economic center, perhaps it is all a plan to save the water supply, or perhaps their intentions are even more suspect (who knows). What we do know is that the whole plan is orchestrated to ensure a specific outcome.
This brings us back to the School board’s Master Planning committee and their plans for public meetings on building a new Treasure Mountain School (and probably more). The School District Master Planning Committee has been working on the Treasure Mountain rebuild since at least last April. They are hiring a planner to put the plan together. They have hired Park City’s Panic Button Media for public relations because “they have great contacts in the local media.” They’ve said they can only have the communications company on board until the school board formally votes for the bond issuance, because they can’t spend public dollars on marketing the bond. Therefore, an outside group will need to be found to push the bond.
For all intents and purposes they already know they want to rebuild Treasure Mountain and will have to issue a bond. The planning company is running the 3 public meetings to educate the public on grade realignment and the new school. The PR firm will push the benefits out via KPCW and the Park Record. It’s a done deal.
We realize that’s how it’s done and we understand why people do it that way. As they say, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” So, we’ll leave the ethical questions for another day…
That said, let’s say you and 10 friends show up to the public meetings and vehemently oppose the idea of rebuilding Treasure Mountain. Is there anything you could say that would stop the process? A committee of 10 people have been meeting for months and want to rebuild the school. They’ve spent $100,000 on a planner. They’ve engaged a PR firm. They’ve held meetings with the faculty and staff of Treasure Mountain to get their input. They’re talking to financial services firms to figure out the bond offering.
What are you going to say at the public meeting to convince them to stop? “This costs too much.” “Shouldn’t we spend this money on teachers instead?” “The increased taxes put too much burden on the middle class.” Good luck with that. There is too much water under the bridge with almost every decision for your input to really matter.
Perhaps you have strong feelings about the color of the bleachers at the gym or whether the library should be larger. If so, maybe your input will be valuable. Have two kids at Trailside and wish the money was spent on dual immersion instead of a new school? Well, you’re likely out of luck.
Public opinion is helpful only as long as there is someone to both listen to it and act upon it.
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