Respect. Honesty. Compromise. Progress.
Alexandrians listed these and other principles for ideal civic engagement during the first “What's Next, Alexandria?” citizen engagement meeting Thursday at First Baptist Church on King Street. The city initiative aims to bring local residents into planning processes through a series of community dialogues and begin a conversation about how Alexandrians can best participate in shaping the city’s future.
Some council members and council-elect members attended, as well as city management staff, department heads and almost 200 local residents. Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille told participants that cities and towns across the country are launching similar initiatives.
“We’re here because we know that some of you have concerns,” Euille said. “How do we know that? Because we just went through an election and campaigning and everything else, and folks were all over the map about where we are and what’s wrong. But yet, we have already begun to be proactive and reactive in terms of trying to improve the political process.”
He added: “I can tell you that your voice does count, and that the whole goal of this initiative is to restore that trust and to create a civic engagement process that is not only meaningful and satisfying for you, but also makes sure that the community’s input and interest are reflected in every decision that we make.”
John Porter, ACT for Alexandria executive director, told the crowd there is room for improvement in the city’s participatory process and outreach to more local residents.
“Collaboration between citizens and their government leads to decisions that better stand the test of time,” he said. “The vision for this process is to have members of the community, like you, involved actively and constructively in meaningful ways in the decisions that affect your lives and those of your neighbors.”
One audience member complained loudly that he city's timetable doesn't implement any community recommendations until May, eliciting both applause and groans. Assistant City Manager Tom Gates responded that the sessions' goals were not to revisit old council decisions but rather to create a framework for emphasizing community input going forward.
Community member Allen Lomax presented the results of a recent community poll that elicited more than 1,600 responses. Respondents were asked how they participate in decision-making processes, with voting in elections and attending community associations the top two methods cited.
Respondents also reported they preferred convenient times of the day and week to participate in decision-making processes, with many saying they were too busy to participate. They also said inviting the community to participate in decision-making early in the process was most important. Development, traffic management and schools were listed as the top three community concerns.
Guest speaker Carolyn Lukensmeyer, founder of America Speaks and executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, said Alexandria has a national reputation for creative planning processes and community engagement.
“This is a zeitgeist issue,” she said. “We are living at a time where the tear in the fabric between citizens and their institutions, particularly their governmental institutions, but frankly, all of them, there’s a gap there. People want to be more engaged, and yet a lot of the habit patterns we have about how we have engaged people are not sustainable, are not deep enough and are not dealing enough with all the complexity that is in the community.”
Fundamentally, Lukensmeyer said, democracy is a conversation. “And like many other conversations, whether that’s around your dining room table, or it’s in your schoolroom or Rotary Club or at work, there’s a set of principles about how to have a conversation that matters. And the second thing I’d like to put up there is the quality of the conversation really matters.”
Toward the end of the meeting, residents participated in group exercises to determine what ideal engagement feels like, what is expected of engaged citizens and what residents expect in return for their efforts. Future community meetings are scheduled after the beginning of the new year.