Survey: Governing comes with challenges

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By Kirsten Laskey

Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series regarding the Los Alamos County Community Survey.

German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “To rule is easy, to govern difficult.”
That quote seems particularly relevant when reviewing the results of the 2010 Los Alamos Community Survey. The level of effort to communicate with citizens and involve residents in the county government’s decision-making processes poses a challenge.
While the county government has made gains in the public’s perception, the survey reveals more work remains to be done.
Communicating information about county news, meetings and events in a timely manner, providing information that citizens need to participate in county decisions, giving opportunities for citizen involvement in county decision-making, openness of the county decision-making process and fairness of the county’s decision making process all fell below the “good” rating in the survey.
The survey was conducted in May by Southwest Planning and Marketing of Santa Fe, and 400 people participated in the survey. A mean rating was given to each area covered in the survey. The rating was based on a one to four scale. Four is excellent and one is poor.
Communicating information about county news, meetings and events in a timely manner received the highest rating of 2.8.
The county’s Web site is a predominant tool for communicating with the public; in fact, it is used by 73 percent of the respondents.
County Council Chair Mike Wismer said communication is the core issue.
“I think the fundamental reason county government is not scoring as high as we should is because we need to improve our
communications and I think that is our number one fundamental issue,” he said.
“We tend to have long discussions about policy matters that delve into details to the point where we lose our audience and they lose comprehension of why we are making certain decisions. To me, rather than limit discussion, we need to air the details and then make a decision at a later date.”
Wismer said he feels the council should host more listening sessions and town hall style meetings first and then have policy discussions, and hold off on final decisions until a later date.
Wismer is not the only council member supporting a similar decision-making strategy; he said Councilor Robert Gibson mentioned the value of holding discussion sessions first, giving councilors time to think and make a decision later.
Also, Council Vice Chair Sharon Stover has proposed holding quarterly town hall meetings she calls grassroots listening sessions, where councilors can hear citizen concerns in an informal setting—something akin to neighbors talking over the back fence.
It would be similar to the county councilors attending the Farmers Market, she said. At the market, people come and talk to the councilors or fill out a form to be followed-up by a staff member.
Stover said she envisions the meetings as informal, relaxed environments and not held at the council chambers but elsewhere in the community such as in a church or school. Meetings would also alternate between White Rock and Los Alamos. The person facilitating the discussion would not be affiliated with the council and meetings would be structured so no one individual would dominate the discussion. For instance, each person could have three minutes to talk.
Meetings would be recorded and the minutes posted on the county’s Web site.
The whole purpose behind the meetings, she said, is to “hear what people have to say on any kind of issue raised.”
 Another issue the survey covered involved providing information that citizens need to participate in county decisions, which received a 2.6 rating.
This rating tied with how effective the survey participants thought the county was at providing opportunities for citizen involvement in county decisions.
Los Alamos resident Pat Max said, “one of the causes of dissatisfaction with the county council is the way that citizens are permitted to participate (in council meetings). The standard method is a topic is introduced and the staff is able to make their presentation and then the council asks for public comment. Then after public comment, there’s a motion (and) sometimes the public would like to comment on the motion but they are not allowed to do that.”
Max said there should be an opportunity for public input even after a motion is made on a given issue.
Once a motion is made by a councilor, Max said, “The public can do nothing.”
She added, “I think that the format of the council meetings stifles the kind of input they need.”
Openness of the county decision-making process and fairness of the county decision-making process both received 2.5.
While the scores are not as high as other areas covered on the survey, they have gotten better over the years.
Julie Habiger, communications and public relations administrator, said making changes such as the capital improvement project process, which allows citizens to propose projects for council consideration, makes local government more inclusive.
Kent Budge, chairperson for the White Rock Implementation Committee, agrees. “I think the county government has bent over backward to get citizens involved.”
Some of the ways community members are invited to participate in local government includes provisions for public comment. Budge said virtually any public meeting has time set aside for citizens to speak.
Budge said there are also a number of boards and committees where the public can become more involved and make recommendations to local government.
It’s important for the community to be active in government, Budge said, because, “One, the more people involved means more information is being brought into the process, and the other is it allows concerns to be addressed early rather than late. It defuses potential disagreements before they come intractable.”
Max also said local government needs to hear from citizens.
“I think people need to be involved in the council meetings and participate in the meetings or at least e-mail the council their thoughts (because) this is basically the only level of government where citizens have any hope of being heard,” she said.
“If you feel very strongly about something, don’t expect someone to go battle for you (go to the) meetings so you can be heard. We have a very hard time being heard at the state and federal level so only at the local level do we have hope of making an impact in terms what’s going on in our community.”

Contact Kirsten Laskey at lareporter@lamonitor.com