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Public outreach still an issue for Comprehensive Plan task force

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 by Mark Richardson

Whether it was the soothing presence of the Mayor and several Council members, or just a case of calm prevailing over chaos, members of the Comprehensive Plan’s Citizens Advisory Task force made nice last night and appeared to make progress on working out details of the program’s public outreach campaign.

 

Previous meetings of the 30-member panel had deteriorated into arguments over how to get the message about the Comprehensive Plan process out to Austinites, and get their input in return. Some had complained about former Judge Margaret Cooper’s leadership of the task force, while others complained that city staff and hired consultants were pushing their own agenda on the members of the panel.

  

But at Tuesday’s special called meeting, task force members politely – if sometimes emphatically – laid out the issues and moved toward a plan to expand the program’s outreach efforts to increase public participation in the process.

 

“We understand that many of you have concerns about a lot of the things this task force is dealing with,” said Council Member Sheryl Cole, “and we are going to deal with them, one by one.”

 

Cole attended, along with three other Council members – Bill Spelman, Chris Riley, and Laura Morrison – and Mayor Lee Leffingwell. City Manager Marc Ott was also at the meeting.

 

Cole was the only member who spoke to the group, but the others were there to reinforce the Council’s commitment to the $1.5 million process.

 

“You’re our ‘A’ team,” Cole said. “We need you to suit up and get out there and give it your best effort for Austin.”

 

Moral support aside, a number of task force members were not satisfied with the progress made to get public input into the process. Larry Schooler, the city’s community engagement coordinator, and consultant Robena Jackson, with Group Solutions RJW, outlined the outreach effort so far.

 

“We have put together a number of different plans to get people involved in the process,” Jackson said, discussing the “Meeting in a Box” effort, which includes developing a traveling kiosk, using a speaker’s bureau to talk with various civic groups, and discussing a concerted media relations effort.

 

But several of the task force members said the number of responses from the public were insufficient to give them the feedback they needed to make decisions on the elements of the plan.

 

Task force member Patricia Dabbert said she believed that more public input is needed.

 

“I seems like we are ending the outreach program before we have what we need,” she said. “I think we need to keep it open longer in order to get better feedback.”

 

Task force member Mark Yznaga said it has been difficult to reach consensus on the outreach program.

 

“There are several key points that concern us,” he said. “We need materials – paper, envelopes and such – in order to communicate with the public, but there is no budget for that. Can we take contributions?  We also need access to the entities that are working with the program, the city staff, and the consultants. We tried but we couldn’t meet with them, so we began putting together our own program.”

 

Schooler explained that the process would continue through March 1 in order to allow more opportunities to reach members of the public and give them time to return questionnaires and other materials.

 

The task force also voted to give its Committee on Outreach, chaired by member Perla Cavazos, the power to meet with staff and the consultant and go forward with a second phase of the plan.

 

The task force will meet again in February.

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